The technology I have in mind as our saviour in the next pandemic is Artificial Intelligence (AI). In proposing this I am inspired by two things. Firstly, the conclusion of some recent reviews that AI development has been progressing at a much faster rate than previously anticipated. Even such challenging goals as conducting an intricate surgical procedure and doing independent scientific research seem to be quite achievable within a few years. The progress can, and should, be expedited keeping the present crisis in mind.
My second inspiration comes from the realisation that most of us, including most of the global leaders, have learned our lessons from Covid-19. It creates the hope that when this crisis is over, the international community will move towards a concerted action including the installation of the services of AI to avoid a repetition. The global investment and efforts required for AI to manage or stave off another pandemic will pale in comparison to the cost that all countries will have to pay without it. I believe that we can take AI to an extraordinary height soon if we want to. And at the same time we can avoid—by keeping it under global control—the apprehensions of the naysayers that AI will take away our jobs in every sector, that the surveillance power it creates will jeopardise our privacy, and that it may even overpower and annihilate us.
To begin with, the AI under global control will continuously analyse Big Data that encompasses worldwide medical records for any sign of a mutated new virus infecting a human being anywhere in the world, and alert the relevant authorities immediately. At a simpler level, this may seem somewhat similar to the case when an all-AI news agency became the first in the world to find out and publicise the news of the assassination of the elder brother of the current North Korean dictator in a foreign airport. AI will, along with human scientists, immediately study the virus, its mutations, possible lethality, and its transmission. It will help in the isolation of the human carrier and trace his/her contacts so that they too can be immediately isolated. Hopefully, that will be the end of the threat. Such detective works in all kinds of places in the world have been found to be extremely difficult and dangerous for human experts, to say the least.
If, unfortunately, a particularly unpredictable virus escapes the net and threatens to start a crisis, the moment it happens, the precisely programmed AI protocol will start the research for a vaccine and a drug for this very mutation. With advanced AI, the speed and parallel progress of it can be much greater. But even then, a usable vaccine may need some time to develop, so AI will gear up its next lines of defence. For example, it will bolster the usually maintained reserves of food, medicine, hospital equipment, PPEs, and other essentials for emergency by its robotic manufacturing facilities, all distributed around the world.
Now imagine: when a lockdown becomes unavoidable because of the start of the community transmission of a virus, Phase I of defence kicks in—the reserve supplies are regularly distributed to the designated quarantine centres, hospitals, and homes of the people by the robotic couriers, keeping human contact to the minimum. The same minimum contact is maintained in medical treatment, thanks to the AI doctors and nurses helping the human ones. Of course, AI will do much more. It will keep the whole world correctly updated about the virus, and will make the best projections for the coming days. With these timely actions, the crisis will soon be over, and with all humans in the world properly vaccinated, the time will come to go for business as usual.
However, in the worst case scenario, Phase II in AI-assisted defence may have to be invoked. Phase II kicks in when the reserve is exhausted but it is too early to lift the lockdown yet. Now it will be AI's turn to keep the economy afloat. This is a situation the thought of which is normally dreaded by many—AI taking over the economy and doling out the subsistence to the people who have no work. But this is not normal times, and it would be for a very short period of crisis economy after all. AI continues to produce under the guidance of human policymakers and to provide goods and services to all. These would come from highly flexible, highly robotised, multitasking, digitally controlled special fabricators, always ready for special occasions, each type programmed to produce multiple things round the clock. Many prototypes are already working. 3D printers may be a simpler case in point. Essential services will be kept on, dominantly by using AI-run emergency automations such as self-driven vehicles and robots. The human actors in economy can take over again as soon as possible.
The UN, or better still, a UN-like global body with more authority and effectiveness, should be able to guide, regulate, and make happen the appropriate AI. It should ensure global vigilance, make the AI systems available to countries in need, and formulate global policies in using them. The rest can be left to the national authorities, with details best suited to the circumstances of a country. Such global control and even global R&D are not unthinkable. Yes, the world is not coming any nearer to a unified entity, as the war of words and demonstrations of naked self-interest have shown in recent times (and even during this current crisis). But perhaps because of the sheer instinct of self-preservation and because no alternative is in sight, a change of heart will come.
Let us take the pilot-autopilot collaboration in a flight as a metaphor for our AI-rich life. One may ask, if the autopilot can do so much in a crisis, why then do we need the pilot at all? Why don't we let the autopilot fly the plane all the time? Our answer: the pilot should be there because that is the way we human beings like it. We want human beings to be in ultimate control at every stage. During a normal flight, the autopilot relieves the pilot of all monotonous chores in the flight, removes all the sharp edges from it, tries to give the pilot and the passengers a refreshing flying experience. Our advanced AI will do exactly the same by giving us a better quality of life during normal times, without taking anything away.
Are the epidemics and pandemics only crises where the above scheme with AI will apply? Not at all. The scheme can be adapted to any major emergencies and disasters, local or global. Also, there can be global disasters with greater threats to humanity, not yet anticipated by us. But some of these technologies, properly developed and prepared, and prudently used by us, may prove to be the difference between life and death for millions, even billions, of people. Who says a meteorite of the size that killed all dinosaurs might not strike us one of these days?
Muhammad Ibrahim, PhD, is a science writer and populariser, and retired professor of physics at Dhaka University.