In common with other countries, the French government has declared face masks as essential, and has made wearing them compulsory on public transport and in secondary schools.
This mandate came on the heels of France opening up the economy after a lockdown that, according to French prime minister Edouard Philippe, likely saved more than 60,000 lives.
Officials have turned to artificial intelligence (AI) for help in monitoring whether or not the public is complying, especially when moving about the country.
In particular, France is utilising AI software in conjunction with existing security cameras.
The software, developed by French start-up DatakaLab, is being used solely for data gathering purposes, explained company CEO Xavier Fischer - and not to identify and punish individuals who aren’t wearing face masks in public.
The anonymous statistical data compiled by the software will, according to Fischer, help officials anticipate future outbreaks of Covid-19.
However, the French surveillance system automatically alerts city authorities and police when it detects non-compliance, raising issues about possible invasions of privacy.
DatakaLab insist that its software is not facial recognition, and that it does not actually store data - unlike surveillance tech used in other countries, notably China, the epicentre of the current pandemic.
Indeed, the software in France neither transmits data into the cloud nor sends it back to DatakaLab’s offices. Instead, it detects individuals wearing face masks at 15-minute intervals, compiles all recorded information, and then generates related statistics, to be collected and later scrutinised by authorities.
The software has been integrated into the Paris metro system’s security cameras, starting in the central Chatelet-Les Halles station.
DatakaLab has also integrated its AI-assisted software into CCTV cameras installed in buses in the city of Cannes.
Upon returning to their respective depots, each bus connects to the internet and then sends over to local transport authorities the data it collected for the day.
The algorithms of this AI-aided system are expected to be incorporated into existing surveillance systems in other public spaces all across France, including in hospitals, transport stations, airports, and even shopping centres.
DatakaLab’s pilot in France will be monitored closely by governments and industry leaders worldwide. All are looking to not only mitigate the impact of the current pandemic (and its possible second wave), but also to shape their countries’ post-pandemic ways of life.
Ride-hailing platform Uber, in fact, has followed the French surveillance model already, launching its own AI-powered mobile app that tracks whether or not its drivers are using face masks while on the job.
These hi-tech monitoring systems point to technology featuring prominently in the immediate and long-term future, with AI emerging as one of the most useful technologies in the so-called ‘new normal’.
Another example is OpenSpace’s AI-aided social distancing visualisation system, which tracks people movement and plots bottleneck points, thereby giving authorities helpful data to formulate social distancing protocols in the UK.
While the applications of AI are growing, the field in itself remains in a state of flux with constant improvements to the technology.
In fact, the rapid expansion of the technology can be seen in all industries, as well as the educational sector, as more professionals learn how to further integrate AI into society.
This is why AI is becoming - along with data science, software development, cybersecurity, user experience and blockchain – one of the cornerstones of computer science degrees.
With academic institutions now putting a premium on these fields, expect more expert-level AI professionals in the future to move the technology forward and develop more practical applications, as is being done now by DatakaLab in France, and by OpenSpace in the UK.
Invariably, current and future experts will have to double their efforts to figure out how to best utilise AI in this post-pandemic period, as the threat of another outbreak looms ominously.
More applications are likely to emerge in the coming months – in the mobility sector as well as in areas such as vaccine discovery - with AI companies actively seeking ways to use the technology to make the world's post-coronavirus days as safe and as manageable at possible.
And DatakaLab's face mask surveillance system in France could be one step towards achieving this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
IT consultant and tech blogger Reese Jones has a degree in computer science and specialises in writing about AI, privacy and surveillance in mobility, and up-and-coming technology