Tech Cynic: On a knife edge

Proposed solutions to the social distancing problem are coming thick and fast, all of them tech-based and concerning.

"Keep six feet, 150cm or two metres [depending on your location and government edict] away from everyone unless you normally breathe the same air that they do."

As instructions go, this is one of the hardest to obey, especially when lockdown begins to ease in some regions and people go back to work, venture out into the sunshine or head for the small selection of shops that are permitted to be open.

How to maintain such a distance at all times? Carry a giant hula-hoop wherever you go? Plan your walking route along the pavement with great care and precision? Hop into the road or dodge into doorways to avoid approaching pedestrians? And what happens if you do breach that invisible barrier around every other person outside your home 'bubble'? Will onlookers shout at you? Will you be arrested? Will you immediately come down with COVID-19?

So many questions, so much insecurity and fear. And inevitably, where there's fear and insecurity there's also money. Several solutions have been proposed to address the thorny issue of keeping people at more-than-arm's length. Some of them have merit from a technical perspective but all of them raise serious questions that are unlikely to be answered or even addressed until COVID-19 has become a distant memory - if that ever happens.

First up is the EU's proposed scheme, which is intended to be voluntary. A smartphone app would be installed by all good citizens, using Bluetooth to anonymously identify infected people and warn others to maintain their distance. This solution isn't so much concerned with the minimum radius of approach but proximity to the already-ill. As you may or may not expect from the EU, privacy is placed at the forefront, so there should be no means of identifying users. However, this makes little sense because it means infected people must therefore self-identify, or at least maybe have a little flag placed on their anonymous app by a GP or other professional medical tester.

The voluntary aspect is clearly unworkable, as some EU states have already realised. Either it's compulsory or it's useless. However, if it's compulsory then it can't be anonymous... so we're back to square one.

Other schemes being proposed include an AI-equipped CCTV camera system that can calculate the distance between two people and highlight them in red if they are too close together, although it has no way of knowing - hopefully - whether they are strangers, friends or family members. Yet another scheme involves intelligent bracelets that will presumably beep or vibrate if you're in the presence of an infected person or standing too close to others in a supermarket queue.

To continue reading this article register now