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Pandemic has accelerated R&D processes across world: NEC CTO


The remote collaboration between researchers necessitated by the pandemic has accelerated the R&D process across the world, according to Motoo Nishihara, Executive Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, NEC Corporation. NEC, a 120-year-old Japanese conglomerate with footprints across the world, has seen technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence evolve to take on the new challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nishihara cited the examples of two products that were developed quickly during the lockdown months. One, a video imaging technology that can look at a crowd and alert if the individuals don’t have the requisite social distance between themselves in places like airports. Then, the facial recognition technology in which NEC is one of the top global players went to the level where it could identify people even with their masks on. “We did this in three to four months,” Nishihara said in a video interview with indianexpress.com.

“Given that 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have any form of identification, multi-modal authentication system using facial and iris recognition could be used to ensure the proper rollout of vaccines and other products,” Nishihara said, adding that NEC does not yet have a product that can be used in Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
Another technology that could become important in future if NEC’s use of AI for cancer treatment.

Nishihara examined: “AI is very effective in cancer treatment because we can define the parameters of the customers. I think from now on we have a lot of opportunity for integrating our AI system to the other domains like healthcare.” Interestingly, he said, the cancer treatment is based on the face recognition technology which NEC has. “Using face detection technology in the affected area we can effectively detect cancer cells.”

Over the past few months, researchers involved with this AI-powered drug for cancer are now contributing towards the creation of an effective Covid-19 vaccine. Working with the OncoImmunity AS, a Norway-based bioinformatics company which NEC acquired in 2019, its AI Drug Development Division completed a genetic analysis of COVID-19 and published the results in just a month’s time.

Dr. Akihiko Iketani, Head of NEC Laboratories, explained that their fingerprint identification system is already utilised in African countries to see whether a baby was already vaccinated, and If yes, then what kind of vaccination was given. “We strongly believe that a similar kind of solution will be required very soon in India as well for Covid-19 and other types of diseases,” Dr Iketani added.

Nishihara agreed that remote working and touchless processes could become the new normal with the pandemic and the threat that such situations could recur now with a higher frequency. “If we continue this kind of situation, our new society has to have some kind of preparation for the future when remote working and touches systems could become necessary, or even mandatory,” he added.

In India, NEC India’s president and CEO Aalok Kumar chipped in, the company is seeing “very strong requirement, both from the government and the enterprise to go more touchless”. NEC is about to start a pilot project at Varanasi airport to allow passengers touchless and paperless entry and has also got the contract to do the same in the Pune, Kolkata and Vijayawada.

“If you can apply something like that in a highly sensitive, highly secured and politically sensitive area like aviation, you can imagine how quickly it will get integrated in the enterprise sector,” Kumar added. He said a lot of the resistance that people used to face in unlocking the budget for digitisation of processes has gone become of the pandemic. “That is unlocking a lot of peripheral IT and infrastructure and foundation investment.”



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