Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used as a tool to support the fight against the viral pandemic that has affected the entire world since the beginning of 2020. The press and the scientific community are echoing the high hopes that data science and AI can be used to confront the coronavirus. Its uses seem to have included support for measures restricting the movement of populations, forecasting the evolution of disease outbreaks and research for the development of a vaccine or treatment. With regard to the latter aspect, AI has been used to speed up genome sequencing, make faster diagnoses, carry out scanner analyses or, more occasionally, handle maintenance and delivery robots.
How Artificial Intelligence Has Been Utilised During the Global Pandemic:
1. AI Contributing to Search for a Cure
The first application of AI expected in the face of a health crisis is certainly the assistance to researchers to find a vaccine able to protect caregivers and contain the pandemic. Biomedicine and research rely on a large number of techniques, among which the various applications of computer science and statistics have already been making a contribution for a long time. The use of AI is therefore part of this continuity. The predictions of the virus structure generated by AI have already saved scientists months of experimentation. AI seems to have provided significant support in this sense.
AI Leaders including IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have provided the computing power of their servers to the US authorities to process very large datasets in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modelling.
2. AI & Knowledge Sharing
Indeed, in the weeks following the appearance of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, nearly 2,000 research papers were published on the effects of this new virus, on possible treatments, and on the dynamics of the pandemic. This influx of scientific literature naturally reflects the eagerness of researchers to deal with this major health crisis, but it also represents a real challenge for anyone hoping to exploit it. Microsoft Research, the National Library of Medicine and the Allen Institute for AI (AI2) therefore presented their work on 16 March 2020, which consisted of collecting and preparing more than 29,000 documents relating to the new virus and the broader family of coronaviruses, 13,000 of which were processed so that computers could read the underlying data, as well as information on authors and their affiliations.
3. Observing & Predicting the Evolution of the Pandemic
One company is credited with the early detection of the virus using an AI and its ability to continuously review over 100 data sets, such as news, airline ticket sales, demographics, climate data and animal populations. As a result, they detected what was then considered an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China on 31 December 2019 and identified the cities most likely to experience this outbreak.
A team of researchers working with the Boston Children’s Hospital has also developed an AI to track the spread of the coronavirus. Called HealthMap, the system integrates data from Google searches, social media and blogs, as well as discussion forums: sources of information that epidemiologists do not usually use, but which are useful for identifying the first signs of an outbreak and assessing public response.
The International Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI) in Slovenia, under the auspices of UNESCO, has launched an “intelligent” media watch on coronavirus called Coronavirus Media Watch which provides updates on global and national news based on a selection of media with open online information. The tool, also developed with the support of the OECD and the Event Registry information extraction technology, is presented as a useful source of information for policy makers, the media and the public to observe emerging trends related to Covid-19 in their countries and around the world.
4. AI Assisting Healthcare Personnel
The Beijing-based start-up Infervision has trained its software to detect lung problems using computed tomography (CT) scans. Originally used to diagnose lung cancer, the software can also detect pneumonia associated with respiratory diseases such as coronavirus. At least 34 Chinese hospitals are reported to have used this technology to help them screen 32,000 suspected cases.
In South Korea, AI is reported to have helped reduce the time needed to design testing kits based on the genetic make-up of the virus to a few weeks, when it would normally take two to three months. The biotech company used its automated test development system to develop the test kit and distribute it widely.
5. AI & Population Control
In South Korea, an alert transferred to the health authorities is triggered when people do not comply with the isolation period, for example by being in a crowded place such as on public transport or a shopping centre. In Taiwan, a mobile phone is given to infected persons and records their GPS location so that police can track their movements and ensure that they do not move away from their place of confinement.
In Italy, a company has also developed a smartphone application that can be used to trace the itinerary of a person infected with the virus and warn people who have had contact with him or her. According to the designer, privacy would be guaranteed, as the application would not reveal phone numbers or personal data.
6. AI in the Aftermath of the Pandemic
Digital technology, including information technology and AI, are therefore proving to be important tools to help build a coordinated response to this pandemic. Finally, it should be possible to evaluate the emergency measures taken at the end of the crisis in order to identify the benefits and issues encountered by the use of digital tools and AI. Standards relating to data protection, must still be applied fully and under all circumstances: whether it be the use of biometric data, geolocalisation, facial recognition or the use of health data.
Council of Europe, (2021) ‘AI and Control of Covid-19 Coronavirus’. Available at: https://www.coe.int/en/web/artificial-intelligence/ai-and-control-of-covid-19-coronavirus [Accessed 12 May 2021].