Blog by Chelsea Miya Ph.D

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prince Takamado Japan Centre for Teaching and Research hosted the webinar series Ageing Society in the Era of Pandemics: Approaches in Japan and Canada. These dialogues, broadcast live online, brought together experts from Japan and Canada to explore the current social and cultural impacts of the pandemic and look ahead to the post-pandemic future.

PTJC Director Dr. Aya Fujiwara explained that a “significant part of the Centre’s mandate is to create opportunities for intellectual exchanges between Japan and Canada.” The online format of the webinar series made this continued exchange of research and ideas possible, even during a time when it was impossible to meet face-to-face.

Japan’s Consul General Shigenobu Kobayashi, who sponsored the event, emphasized the importance of collaboration in facing the challenges ahead. “It has become glaringly clear that we no longer stand alone as a people, nation, or even the broader geographic regions,” said Kobayashi. “This is a global problem. Through the collaboration of our nations’ experts we will gain insights to help deal with our common struggles, not only those faced by our two nations, but the entire world.”

The current crisis has brought to light systemic problems, particularly that of the growing aging population, an issue that has affected both Canada and Japan. As Kobayashi pointed out, we need to take advantage of the current moment to consider how to better take care of the elderly.

“So many of us are tired, so many of us are sick, so many of us feel despaired,” said Kobayashi. “However, this is where we can shine together… Through this collaborative approach to problem-solving, we will eventually find our path to a remedy.”

The first webinar, “Policies in Japan and Alberta,” brought together Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Tohoku University Professor of Virology Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani to discuss the different policy approaches of Canada and Japan.

The second webinar, “Seniors’ Life and Care during COVID-19,” featured Dr. Reiko Hayashi, Deputy Director-General of Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS), and Dr. Jasneet Parmar, Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at UAlberta and the Medical Lead of Alberta Health Services, Edmonton Zone Home Living and Transitions.

Next, the “Applying AI in COVID-19” session explored the artificial intelligence technologies on the frontlines of the pandemic fight, with guests Dr. Yuzuru Tanaka, Hokkaido University Professor Emeritus and UAlberta Computing Science Adjunct Professor, and Dr. Randy Goebel, UAlberta Computing Science Professor.

The final webinar, “Mobilizing Serious Games during COVID-19,” looked at how pandemic society can benefit from creative play, with UAlberta Professor of Philosophy and Humanities Computing Dr. Geoffrey Rockwell and Kyushu University’s Associate Professor of Content and Creative Design Dr. Hiroyuki Matsukuma.

To conclude the series, we gathered some of the speakers back together to reflect and expand upon its themes.

Q: Dr. Goebel, in the “Applying AI in COVID-19” webinar, you discuss the importance of literature-based discovery. As you point out, there has been a flurry of research activity. There has also been great interest in making that research public. Scientific journals, like Nature, have for the first time started offering authors, albeit only those willing and able to pay a hefty extra fee, the option to make their content freely available (Seltzer). Can you talk about the role of open access and open data, and why might it be important for facilitating these new literature-based discoveries?

Randy Goebel: The importance of open access can not be overstated. The scientific world produces more literature than we can absorb, and even highly specialized scientists cannot keep up with confirming progress in their areas of interest.   So open access is necessary to ensure access to all new literature for both humans and machines to read. In the case of literature-based discovery, all we learn about AI methods to create accurate abstractions of a literature will help us more quickly identify scientific value, and sort out the value in the overwhelming volume of publication.

Q: What are the limitations of manual contract tracing and how can AI help? At the same time, what are the ethical concerns? How do we develop more ethical (and secure) AI-based tracing apps?

Randy Goebel: The limitations of contact tracing are two: 1) human analysis doesn’t scale, so adding more humans creating more reports that are too voluminous to extract value from is doomed; the second 2) is that AI-enabled contact tracing relies on accurate base information (e.g., health system confirmation of actual confirmed positive tests) and on a sufficient volume of app users to reach a threshold where probabilistic inferences become accurate enough to be actionable (e.g., target public health intervention to identified at-risk groups). I believe that security of data is defined by baseline best practice, not by speculation on possible negative impact of security breaches. This is a classical instance of the tradeoff between public value and individual risk.

Q: Dr. Tanaka, you’ve talked about how AI is used to forecast different possible pandemic sceneries (called “germ games”). What are some misconceptions about these Covid forecasting models? How do we help the public make sense of this data?

Yuzuru Tanaka: What we have seen in mass media during the last year is COVID-19 pandemic forecasting that is based on either the SIR model – with S, I, and R representing the numbers of susceptible individuals, infected individuals, and recovered individuals, respectively – or its extensions. These models are mathematically designed to remove many of the complexities associated with the real time evolution of the spread of the virus in a way useful both quantitatively and qualitatively. There are some extensions of these basic models to consider the age difference of infections and/or the difference of individuals’ infection capacities. These models are further combined with the herd immunity model and/or human mobility data for better forecasting.

As we have already experienced, the real time evolution of the virus is the result of the contact-based infection, coevolution of immunity, peoples’ mobility, government countermeasures against COVID-19, and behavior change of people. Furthermore, the last two are closely related to the economic impact and economic measure by the local and national governments. The SIR model can basically model only the contact-based infection mechanism. Some researchers are trying to combine it with the coevolution of immunity and/or the peoples’ mobility. However, its real-time combination with the dynamically changing government countermeasures against COVID-19, the behavior change of people, the dynamically changing economic impact and ad hoc economic measures by the local and national governments is not sufficiently achieved as a foundational technology. Such an integrated system requires varieties of real-time simulations and the real-time data assimilation with the forecasting system.

What “Germ Game” means is such an integrated system without the above mentioned real-time data assimilation capability. Because of the lack of real-time data assimilation capability, its main purpose is to help design the best countermeasures for varieties of different pandemic scenarios. It is mainly used in the preparedness phase of the disaster. Much more research efforts should be focused on the real-time data assimilation of the forecasting system with a huge variety of large-scale continuous and discrete real-time simulations. Public misconceptions about the Covid forecasting models mainly come from the lack of understanding of this big gap between the SIR model based current forecasting system and the future integrated forecasting system using the real-time data assimilation of the forecasting model, varieties of real-time simulations, and the real-time big data of the mobility and the infection.

Q: This past year, along with the spread of the virus, we’ve also seen the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Has Japan experienced a similar phenomenon? Could AI also be used to educate the public and combat misinformation?

Yuzuru Tanaka: In Japan, during the first several months, even medical experts, including well-known ones, transmitted lots of misinformation through mass media almost every day. Some of them were obviously judged as wrong information by amateurs with basic biological knowledge. In my understanding, this is mainly because the understanding of COVID-19, its virus, and its countermeasure requires multidisciplinary knowledge including epidemiology, infectious disease clinical, virology, immunology, vaccine science, and quarantine. It is difficult even for an expert to cover all of them. Nevertheless, mass media forces each expert to comment on a wide spectrum of topics. Such a situation was gradually improved during the last couple of months.

On social network services (SNS) [the Japanese equivalent of social media apps like Facebook or Twitter], unfortunately, there is a much wider spectrum of misinformation and conspiracy stories about COVID-19 written in Japanese, ranging from just misunderstandings to malicious fake news. Literature-based knowledge discovery technologies may help users to check if given information is misinformation by showing the probability of its validity, which is similar to how the IBM Watson system evaluated the found candidate answers to choose the best answer. However, this requires the large accumulation of validated knowledge, and it may not work for the validation of new statements about completely new topics. SNS is full of such new topics for which we have no accumulation of already validated knowledge. There are some other approaches to evaluate the validation of specific information based on its provenance if it can be traced back.

As for artificially-generated fake photos and videos [aka “deepfakes”], which use a special deep-learning neural network architecture called the faceswap-GAN (Generated Adversarial Network) to replace an original person’s face with another person’s face, their detection technologies are also already proposed based on the deep neural network. However, the automatic detection of misinformation in general is still a challenging goal. Definitely, the detection of misinformation and the validity estimation of given information will be one of the challenging targets of AI research.

Q: The pandemic has amplified ongoing, systemic problems, not only misinformation, but also issues like the lack of supports for seniors and their caregivers. Dr. Hayashi, you have studied the impacts of this in Japan, a country with the world’s oldest population with 28% of people over the age of 65. How have the attitudes and approach to elder care changed, in recent times?

Reiko Hayashi: Back in the 1970s, we realized there was too much burden placed on family members to look after the eldery at home. Traditionally, the [responsibility for caregiving] was the role of the wife of the eldest son, and there was a lot of stigma around nursing homes. These attitudes changed overtime, especially with the introduction of the mandatory long-term care insurance system (LTCIS) in 2000, which was part of the battle to remove this obligation on family caregivers. We shifted the responsibility for long-term care from family to society.

Q: In many countries, including here in Canada, nursing homes have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. In fact, long-term care residents make up a shocking 81% of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada, the highest proportion of all OECD nations (Canadian Institute for Health Information). By contrast, Japan has been praised for its ability to limit the spread of coronavirus infection within elder-care facilities (Denyer and Kashiwagi). What has Japan done differently to keep its seniors safe? What, contrastly, could it do better?

Reiko Hayashi: I guess it is mainly due to the devotion of professional care-workers in the facilities. Some are staying at hotels (not to return to their home!) for the whole year to avoid any other contact than their workplace. Some other factors might be affecting, such as strict control of moving in and out, as well as building air-ventilation control. This last point, the quality of air, is something I am particularly interested in right now, and I would like to hear the situation in nursing homes in Alberta. In fact, we are now creating an IoT network on air quality to monitor 24/7 by connecting CO2 monitors. I wonder if some nursing homes (or hospitals) in Alberta might be interested.

Q: I want to talk, as well, about the social impacts of the pandemic, and of living in isolation. Game sales soared over the past year–and not just video games. Tabletop games, played with boards and dice, have also enjoyed a surge in popularity. What’s the continued appeal of what Zachary Horton calls “post-digital gaming,” played with old fashioned cardboard and plastic pieces? Have tabletop games ever been studied or used as “serious games,” or games with uses beyond just entertainment?

Geoffrey Rockwell: I think we are seeing a much more mature game market where consumers don’t just chase the latest technology. Instead we have multiple markets and the game-makers are responding to demand. We see, for example retro gaming becoming popular as older generations of gamers return to classics they enjoyed when younger.

As for the study of games, traditional games and more generally sport and play have been studied for some time, but not always by the same research community that studies video games. Sociologists and anthropologists have studied play and culture since Huizinga’s Homo Ludens which was originally published in 1938. Play, sport, and ideas of “fair play” have also been studied in departments of sport and recreation. There was even a Canadian philosopher, Bernard Suits, who published a dialogue titled The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia in 1978 that reflects philosophically on what makes a game like golf a game. What I look forward to is the intersection of these different scholarly traditions as we bump against each other over issues like esports. Will sports scholars consider esports really a sport?

Q: Today, we see gamification everywhere: in education, in workplaces, even in healthcare, as Dr. Hiroyuki Matsukuma pointed out in the PTJC webinar “Mobilizing Serious Games during COVID-19.” But should we also be critical of this trend? Isn’t there something a bit unnerving about using games as tools to modify (and moderate) behavior?

Geoffrey Rockwell: I think we should be critical of this trend, especially when it is used to exploit people to get free labour. We also need to be critical of claims made by people like Jane McGonigal who in Reality is Broken (2011) exaggerates the potential for gamification. Teachers have been gamifying serious subjects in classrooms for ages. I can remember completing readings in order to compete for stars as a child. It may work for a while or for some children, but a game ceases to be playful when it is no longer entered into voluntarily. That said, the rhetoric of play, competition and games is all around us. It is worth paying attention to it and thinking about how it is deployed.


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Canadian Institute for Health Information. Pandemic Experience in the Long-Term Care Sector: How Does Canada Compare With Other Countries?. Ottawa, ON: CIHI; 2020,

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. 1938. Routledge, 1998.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin, 2011.

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