Meet COBO, a COVID-19 Self-Assessment Chatbot

This Facebook Messenger bot asks questions to determine one’s risk of catching the virus

4 min read
Photo of 4 people.
From left: Aisha Nazia Nasir Mayin, Abid Omar, Teesha Thomas, and Nikesh Ghosh.
Photo: Aisha Nazia Nasir Mayin

THE INSTITUTE The startup StartChange.Today, cofounded by IEEE Member Aisha Nazia Nasir Mayin in Bangalore, India, has developed a chatbot in association with the marketing agency Chatveda to help users access whether they are at risk of catching the coronavirus by answering a few simple questions.

Mayin is an active IEEE volunteer. She’s the content marketing chair for the IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society. She also serves as vice chair for the society’s IEEE Women in Engineering activities, in India.

The Institute asked Mayin about the chatbot.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

imgCOBO, the COVID-19 self-assessment Facebook Messenger chatbot.Image: Aisha Nazia Nasir Mayin

What problem are you trying to solve?

As the number of people with COVID-19 continues to increase, it’s natural to worry about whether you might be infected.

We wanted to develop a platform to make it easy for people to assess themselves and get immediate results so they could take precautions. We also wanted to help alleviate stress on the health care system and remove panic about catching the virus.

We came up with COBO, a COVID-19 self-assessment Facebook Messenger chatbot.

What technologies are you using?

Facebook Messenger, which is one of the most popular messaging apps in the world. It has more than 1.4 billion users, and is expected to grow to 2.4 billion users by 2021. With an open rate of more than 90 percent, Messenger chatbots are the best platform to communicate with a large audience at scale.

Explain how your project works.

The self-assessment test will enable anyone to answer a few questions to check whether the person might be at risk of being affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Our chatbot wasn’t made to give people medical results. But based on the information from the users, we can help people understand what they are supposed to do if they are in a high-risk environment.

In an accessible, conversational format, the test requests information such as the user’s age, postal code, travel history, symptoms and their severity, and chronic health conditions. Based on the responses, the bot will recommend a course of action such as consult with your doctor, self-quarantine, or go to the hospital.

How are you protecting people’s privacy?

Team StartChange.Today and Chatveda won’t use the data collected by the chatbot for any personal or commercial use. Data such as travel history and existing health conditions will be shared only with a group of doctors and government officials for the sole use of providing better health care and increasing the efficiency of the health care system.

What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Initially, it was definitely a challenge for the team to work remotely, but we got through it by finding new ways to collaborate. Also, converting medical scenarios into a form that is easily relatable to the average person and understanding and figuring out the probabilities and permutations behind the bot’s algorithm based on the user’s input was also quite a challenge. But we worked with doctors who were proactive and helpful. 

What is the potential impact of the technology?

The bot will benefit the general public by offering them a quick self-assessment test. Also, by aggregating the medical data the bot collects, the doctors can focus their efforts on those who are at high risk for catching the virus.

In the beta version, we are focusing on segmenting the audience based on the various factors such as travel history, and their health conditions and the severity. This helps the doctors focus on attending to people who need immediate care. This also helps in directing people who don’t require a doctor to help lines set up to assist those with COVID-19 questions. This will help officials manage the rush of those seeking medical care and reduce the high number of walk-ins to hospitals by those who suspect they have the virus.

In the near future, the chatbot will also provide medical authorities and decision-makers with a map based on postal codes, which could help them see where outbreaks are occurring and take action to contain them.

How close are you to the final product? 

We have developed a prototype of the bot, which was launched in April. We are working with several doctors trained to treat COVID-19 patients to make sure the people who fall in the risk category based on the medical protocols provided by the doctors and government authorities get immediate medical attention.

How many people are involved, and how many IEEE members are involved? 

I’m the only IEEE member of our team of five. The others are the three founding partners of Chatveda—Abid Omar, head of bots; Teesha Thomas, director of content; and Nikesh Ghosh, head of operations. Dr. Athul Joseph Manual provides medical expertise.

How can other IEEE members get involved?

They should take the self-assessment test and provide feedback about how we can enhance the experience. For those who want to help us improve the bot—including developers, doctors, data analysts, and data scientists—they can send me an email and put “COBO” in the subject line.

Attention IEEE members: Are you part of a team responding to the COVID-19 crisis? We want to hear from you! Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, if you are helping to deal with the outbreak in some way, let us know. Send us accounts of anywhere from 200 to 800 words, or simply give us a rough idea of what you are doing and your contact information. Write to

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.