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Health-checking robots used to spot signs of illness in Chinese pre-school children

Health-checking robots used to spot signs of illness in Chinese pre-school children 'wouldn't catch on in the UK because people are afraid of being spied on'

  • A firm called Walklake has rolled out the robots to more than 2,000 pre-schools

  • They use cameras to take photos of hands and faces to spot red patches 

  • Each scan should take only around three seconds to see if there is a problem

  • This can be flagged to a human nurse who will re-evaluate and make a decision 

The school nurse of the future could be a robot if Chinese technology catches on – but British people may be too suspicious, experts say.

Children at more than 2,000 pre-schools in the Asian country now have their health checked every morning by a machine.

The Walklake robot, which has a square body and cartoon-like face, takes just three seconds to scan a child's hands, eyes, and throats.

And if it picks up any signs of illness – red eyes, rashes or mouth ulcers, for example – it can refer the child to a human nurse.

One British doctor said he thought parents in the UK wouldn't want the technology and it could disrupt children's learning, but another called it 'a great idea'. 

The Walklake robot, which costs the equivalent of between £4,500 and £5,700, takes just three seconds to scan the child's eyes, hands and throats

The robots use cameras to take photos of the child's face and hands, using regularly updated artificial intelligence to spot signs of illness which a nurse can be alerted to The Walklake robot can be used to create daily reports of child health across schools to try and stop the spread of disease.

It has a thermometer and cameras which scan the child for symptoms of common illnesses such as conjunctivitis, fevers or hand, foot and mouth disease.

Walklake can help keep track of health where there are not enough nurses or other staff, experts said. Professor Karen Panetta, from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, told the New Scientist: 'It’s allowing for better health monitoring, especially in places that have large populations but not enough skilled health professionals.' If the Walklake bots become more widely used, Professor Panetta added, they could help to track and stop the spread of disease.

Pre-schools have been using the robots, which stand 3.2ft (100cm) tall, since 2017 to scan children between the ages of two and six, Walklake said.

Costing between £4,500 and £5,700, the machines can also send the results of the health check to the children's parents and store the data online permanently.

The artificial intelligence software constantly updates and keeps track of new and developing infections so it knows what to look out for.

And Walklake said the robots can double up as a security measure, storing photos of parents' faces to recognise who picks the pupils up from school – potentially alerting teachers to kidnappers.

Dr Stephen Hughes, an A&E doctor and member of the Medical Device and Technology Research Group at Anglia Ruskin University, was sceptical.

He said the machines may be useful if they could stop infections spreading, but the collection of personal information triggered other ethical problems.

'I think a lot of parents in Britain would treat technology like this with suspicion,' he told MailOnline.  'There are clear cultural differences. People in China have to accept government surveillance but does the average Brit have enough trust in the system for this to work?

'We're very uneasy about new technology and this may be seen as sinister.'

However, Professor Duc Pham, a professor of engineering at the University of Birmingham, is in favour of the concept. 

'I think it is an excellent idea,' he said. 'It is akin to the “RoboNurse” that we worked on a few years ago.  'Adopting the system here would make sense. It would enhance healthcare for school children while not causing undue pressures on a short-staffed and cash-strapped NHS.' 

A pre-school nurse shows children how to use one of the robots, which are now in more than 2,000 schools across China

Walklake said its robots can help to monitor children's health in the absence of large numbers of nurses – they are faster and more user-friendly than doing physical examinations on every child

China has already come under criticism for its surveillance of citizens – in January it was revealed the government was planning to use CCTV and artificial intelligence to track people as they travelled around the country.

University of Bath AI expert, associate professor Joanna Bryson, told the New Scientist there was a risk the stored health data could be hacked or used behind people's backs.   

Dr Hughes also suggested children with long-term illnesses may end up being discriminated against and minor illnesses might be disruptive.

'It's a device for exclusion,' he added. 'It could discriminate and it might set a line which parents might not be happy with.

'Exclusion can disrupt teaching and learning and if children aren't exposed to things like sore throats and chickenpox it could cause problems down the line.'

Professor Nello Cristianini, the chair of artificial intelligence at the University of Bristol, echoed Dr Hughes' concerns.

He said: 'We have a new wave of AI devices based on face recognition, which can be used for healthcare but can also access personal information, including of psychometric type. 

'Before we normalise the use of these technologies in the classroom we should first develop a complete set of rules and regulations and principles that are today missing. 

'The step from biometric identification to drawing inferences about the subject in the photo is not without ethical consequences.

'So while automatic health checks are certainly well meaning, they are part of a slippery slope that we should understand before we make irreversible decisions.' 


China's People's Liberation Army recently unveiled a plan to use CCTV and artificial intelligence to follow people as they move around the country. 

The plan from the PLA would use the nation's network of surveillance to find wanted civilians.

Known as EnsembleNet, the programme was trained using 2,000 clips from CCTV footage and is 90 per cent accurate at identifying people, its developer claims.

Body shapes and discernible features are spotted, remembered and scanned for in other footage in the database.

The programme is reportedly sophisticated enough to spot a person in disguise 'regardless of the pose or gait' – and even if some of the features appear different.

The system was used to identify a man with a card attached to his front even when the only other footage of him was when his back was turned to the camera.  

But there are fears about the ethics of the big-brother scheme.

The government is likely to use its rapidly growing surveillance network to enforce the system, with some academics growing concerned that it may be manipulated to enforce the ideology of the ruling Communist party.



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