How Artificial Intelligence Is Helping Fight The COVID-19 Pandemic
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From its epicenter in China, the novel coronavirus has spread to infect 414,179 people and cause no less than 18,440 deaths in at least 160 countries across a three-month span from January 2020 till date. These figures are according to the World Health Organization (WHO) Situation report as of March 25th. Accompanying the tragic loss of life that the virus has caused is the impact to the global economy, which has reeled from the effects of the pandemic.
Due to the lockdown measures imposed by several governments, economic activity has slowed around the world, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has stated that the global economy could be hit by its worst growth rate since 2009. The OECD have alerted that the growth rate could be as slow as 2.4%, potentially dragging many countries into recession. COVID-19 has, in a short period of time, emerged as one of the biggest challenges to face the 21st century world. Further complicating the response to this challenge are the grey areas surrounding the virus itself, in terms of its spread and how to treat it.
As research details emerge, the data pool grows exponentially, beyond the capacity of human intelligence alone to handle. Artificial intelligence (AI) is adept at identifying patterns from big data, and this piece will elucidate how it has become one of humanity’s ace cards in handling this crisis. Using China as a case-study, China’s success with AI as a crisis management tool demonstrates its utility, and justifies the financial investment the technology has required to evolve over the last few years.
Advancements in AI application such as natural language processing, speech recognition, data analytics, machine learning, deep learning, and others such as chatbots and facial recognition have not only been utilized for diagnosis but also for contact tracing and vaccine development. AI has no doubt aided the control of the COVID-19 pandemic and helped to curb its worst effects.
Spurred by China’s gains in this area, other nations can unite to share expertise in order to expand AI’s current capability and ensure that AI can replicate its role in helping China deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic. AI has been deployed in several ways so far, and the following are just seven of the ways in which AI has been applied as a measure to solve the pandemic:
1. DISEASE SURVEILLANCE AI With an infectious disease like COVID-19, surveillance is crucial. Human activity -especially migration- has been responsible for the spread of the virus around the world. Canada based BlueDot has leveraged machine learning and natural language processing to track, recognize, and report the spread of the virus quicker than the World Health Organization and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the near and distant future, technology like this may be used to predict zoonotic infection risk to humans considering variables such as climate change and human activity. The combined analysis of personal, clinical, travel and social data including family history and lifestyle habits obtained from sources like social media would enable more accurate and precise predictions of individual risk profiles and healthcare results. While concerns may exist about the potential infringement to civil liberties of individuals, policy regulations that other AI applications have faced will ensure that this technology is used responsibly.
2. VIRTUAL HEALTHCARE ASSISTANTS (CHATBOTS) The number of COVID-19 cases has shown that healthcare systems and response measures can be overwhelmed. Canada-based Stallion.AI has leveraged its natural language processing capabilities to build a multi-lingual virtual healthcare agent that can answer questions related to COVID-19, provide reliable information and clear guidelines, recommend protection measures, check and monitor symptoms, and advise individuals whether they need hospital screening or self-isolation at their homes.
3. DIAGNOSTIC AI Immediate diagnosis means that response measures such as quarantine can be employed quickly to curb further spread of the infection. An impediment to rapid diagnosis is the relative shortage of clinical expertise required to interpret diagnostic results due to the volume of cases. AI has improved diagnostic time in the COVID-19 crisis through technology such as that developed by LinkingMed, a Beijing-based oncology data platform and medical data analysis company. Pneumonia, a common complication of COVID-19 infection, can now be diagnosed from analysis of a CT scan in less than sixty seconds with accuracy as high as 92% and a recall rate of 97% on test data sets. This was made possible by an open-source AI model that analyzed CT images and not only identified lesions but also quantified in terms of number, volume and proportion. This platform, novel in China, was powered by Paddle Paddle, Baidu’s open-source deep learning platform.
4. FACIAL RECOGNITION AND FEVER DETECTOR AI Thermal cameras have been used for some time now for detecting people with fever. The drawback to the technology is the need for a human operator. Now, however, cameras possessing AI-based multisensory technology have been deployed in airports, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. The technology automatically detects individuals with fever and tracks their movements, recognize their faces, and detect whether the person is wearing a face mask.
5. INTELLIGENT DRONES & ROBOTS The public deployment of drones and robots has been accelerated due to the strict social distancing measures required to contain the virus’ spread. To ensure compliance, some drones are used to track individuals not using facemasks in public, while others are used to broadcast information to larger audiences and also disinfect public spaces. MicroMultiCopter, a Shenzhen-based technology company, has helped to lessen the virus transmission risk involved with city-wide transport of medical samples and quarantine materials through the deployment of their drones. Patient care, without risk to healthcare workers, has also benefited as robots are used for food and medication delivery. The role of room cleaning and sterilization of isolation wards has also been filled by robots. Catering-industry centred Pudu Technology have extended their reach to the healthcare sector by deploying their robots in over 40 hospitals for these purposes.
6. CURATIVE RESEARCH AI Part of what has troubled the scientific community is the absence of a definitive cure for the virus. AI can potentially be a game changer as companies such as the British startup, Exscienta, has shown. Earlier this year, they became the first company to present an AI designed drug molecule that has gone to human trials. A year is all it took the algorithm to develop the molecular structure compared with the five-year average time that it takes traditional research methods.
In the same vein, AI can lead the charge for the development of antibodies and vaccines for the novel coronavirus, either entirely designed from scratch or through drug repurposing. For instance, using its AlphaFold system, Google’s AI company, DeepMind, is creating structure models of proteins that have been linked with the virus in a bid to aid the science world’s comprehension of the virus. Although the results have not been experimentally verified, it represents a step in the right direction.
7. INFORMATION VERIFICATION AI The uncertainty of the pandemic has unavoidably resulted in the propagation of myths on social media platforms. While no quantitative assessment has been done to evaluate how much misinformation is out there already, it is certainly a significant figure. Technology giants like Google and Facebook are battling to combat the waves of conspiracy theories, phishing, misinformation and malware. A search for coronavirus/COVID-19 yields an alert sign coupled with links to verified sources of information. YouTube, on the other hand, directly links users to the WHO and similar credible organizations for information. Videos that misinform are scoured for and taken down as soon as they are uploaded.
While the world continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, positives can be drawn from the expertise and bravery of healthcare workers, as well as the complementary efforts of AI technology to their endeavors in the above listed ways. As the AI world partners with other sectors for solutions, the light at the end of this tunnel shines brighter, creating the much-needed hope the world needs in these uncertain times.