AI, data science and tech against pandemics: Precedence and possibilities | The Daily Star

AI, data science and tech against pandemics: Precedence and possibilities

Saim Ahmed ShifatMarch 28, 2020

Diseases know no borders and the threat of an epidemic is ever increasing with the number of all kinds of outbreaks tripling over the last forty years. While addressing a pandemic, experts usually want to know the following things about the disease: i) How quickly is it spreading? ii) Where is it going next? iii) What are the most effective actions one can take to stop it?

Since the first report of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China, it has spread to at least 100 other countries. While initiating a response to the situation, China resorted to its strong technology sector especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data science. Companies like Alibaba, Baidu, and Huawei accelerated their healthcare initiatives. Tech start-ups are getting more involved integrally with clinicians, academics and government entities around the world to activate technology against the fast-spreading pandemic. Here is how tech is being used throughout the world against the growing pandemic:

Identifying, tracking and forecasting

Tracking the virus is one of the keys to fighting it effectively. AI can analyse news reports, social media platforms, and government documents and detect an outbreak. The Canadian start-up BlueDot provides exactly this service and warned about the impending outbreak several days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization issued their public warnings.

Diagnosing the virus

Usually, a CT scan can tell if a patient is affected by the coronavirus. Whitening, unusual spots or hazy increases in lung density are all cues of COVID-19. The signs are clear but here is the problem - it takes a doctor about 15 minutes to analyse one case. Luckily, with the help of AI, CT scans can be interpreted in 20 seconds. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba built one of these AI-powered diagnosis systems that they claim is 96% accurate at diagnosing the virus in seconds. An AI company named Infervision also launched a solution that helps the healthcare workers detect and monitor the disease and its outbreak efficiently.

Delivering medical supplies

Drone delivery has been established as one of the safest and fastest ways to get medical supplies delivered during outbreaks. Terra Drone is using its unmanned aerial vehicles to transport medical samples and quarantine materials between China's Xinchang County's disease control centre and the People's Hospital. Moreover, these drones are used to patrol public spaces, conduct thermal imaging and track non-compliance by citizens of the affected areas.

Sterilizing, delivering food and supplies

Immune to the virus and its effects, robots are being deployed to do tasks like cleaning, sterilizing and delivering commodities to reduce the scope of human contact. UV-Disinfection (UVD) robots from Blue Ocean Robotics use ultraviolet light to automatically kill bacteria and viruses without requiring human attention or engagement. Recently Pudu Technology deployed its robots, typically used in the catering industry, to more than 40 hospitals in China.

Developing drugs

Google stepped up to provide remedies with their DeepMind division. It used the latest AI algorithms and computing power to understand the elements and ingredients that might constitute the coronavirus and published findings accordingly to help develop treatments. BenevolentAI also dedicated their AI systems to prepare drugs that can fight the world's toughest diseases. The company recently made its first attempt at treating infectious diseases while helping treat coronavirus. Within weeks of the outbreak, they proposed existing drugs in the market that might be useful.

Identifying non-compliance or infected individuals

China's very own sophisticated, although controversial, surveillance system used facial recognition technology and temperature detection software from SenseTime, an artificial intelligence SaaS company, to identify people who might have a fever. Similar technology powers Smart Helmets used in the Sichuan province of China to identify people with a fever. In addition to these, there is a monitoring system called Health Code developed by the Chinese government that uses big data for identification and risk assessment of an individual based on his/her travel history, time spent in virus hotspots, and potential exposure to carriers of the virus. Citizens are assigned a colour code (red, yellow, or green), which can be accessed via the popular apps WeChat or Alipay, to indicate if they should be quarantined or allowed in public.

Sharing information

In China, people can access free online health consultation services through WeChat run by Tencent. Besides, chatbots have been continuously used to disseminate essential information about changing travel procedures and disruptions.

Preparing a vaccine

Companies like Tencent, Didi, and Huawei have cloud computing resources and supercomputers that are being used to accelerate the preparation of a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus. These systems can run calculations and model solutions faster than any standard computer processing can.

Besides the companies mentioned, a blockchain platform offered by Ant Financial helps speed up claims processing and reduces the amount of face-to-face interaction between patients and hospital staff. Companies like Sonovia, an Israeli start-up, hope to arm healthcare systems and others with face masks made from their anti-pathogen, anti-bacterial fabric that relies on metal-oxide nanoparticles.

COVID-19 is not the only disease being tackled by the best tech has to offer. In 2016, Yemen experienced the world's worst cholera outbreak on record, with more than 1 million cases. 2,000 people died because of the outbreak with most of them being children. To address this, a multidisciplinary team led by the University of Maryland was called in to try something new. The UK's Department for International Development also stepped up and deployed a technology that enabled workers to focus efforts on prevention several weeks in advance of the outbreak. The UK's Met Office produced a rainfall forecast for Yemen using its supercomputers. The forecasts were used in conjunction with a computer model developed by the University of Maryland and helped experts find if the downpours would overwhelm the sewerage system and spread the infection.

Despite many possibilities and potential benefits, it is tough to get the most out of tech to fight pandemics for many countries due to lack of access to valid data, the transaction cost for sharing data, limited data capacity and inadequate funding. Moreover, historically authorities around the world have been following this panic and neglect cycle, where authorities and philanthropists invest generously during a crisis and turn their backs as soon as that crisis is over. Besides being proactive, the authorities and governments need to maintain communication and understand how the mass population is addressing the situation. During these crises, the amount of information shared by the government, online channels and population is unlike anything ever seen before. Useful small traces called Digital Breadcrumbs can be mined from sources like Twitter data, Facebook information, online blogs, chat rooms, Google search query data, etc. It can help the authorities understand the population's view about any crisis, their mind-set about the conditions for self-quarantine or the possibility of a vaccine's coming out.

All these measures leverage the new age of information and help us come together to expedite collective progress. In these dire times, we can't stop what we can't see. Information and technology are the best aid we have.

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