Is AI the answer in our quest to combat COVID-19?

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been playing a critical role in transforming virtually every industry since the turn of the Century. However, it is only more recently that it has started to become influential in healthcare. 

However, just as organisations were beginning to utilise AI toolsets to greatly improve the way healthcare is being administered, the focus has shifted significantly. Now, all minds are focused on the question of technological advances which could be used to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The current global health crisis will undoubtedly put technology to the test, and organisations working in the healthcare space are already scrambling to find ways that it can be used to suppress the spread of the virus and ultimately stop it in its tracks. 

Indeed, in a recent report the World Health Organization highlighted the valuable role that technologies like AI and big data played in China’s response to the outbreak. This revelation should come as little surprise; AI has the power to enhance human capabilities, which will not only ease the burden on doctors and nurses, but also allow them to deliver better care. 

I believe strongly that AI could be the answer to overcoming this public health emergency. Here’s why…

Enhanced monitoring capabilities 

One of the main ways in which artificial intelligence is playing a leading role during this outbreak is by giving researchers and medical staff the tools they need to monitor the spread of the virus. Simultaneously, this is better enabling experts to predict how COVID-19 might be transmitted across different demographics in the weeks ahead. 

AI is well-known for its incredible ability to process vast amounts of data at speed and deliver accurate results based on the patterns found within it. As noted in the aforementioned WHO report, this is how the technology was used in China to “strengthen contact tracing and [manage] priority population” that were most vulnerable to the infection. 

Facebook offers another glimpse into how AI’s capabilities can be utilised. Recently, the company announced a suite of ‘global disease prevention maps’, as well as a survey tool for identifying coronavirus hotspots. Facebook is working on compiling and sharing anonymised data about people’s movements which, in turn, gives policymakers a good idea of where people are congregating, and at what times. 

Data-driven insights like these could prove vital when it comes to enforcing measures that will limit the spread of the virus; not only can they help researchers forecast how COVID-19 will transcend across different areas, they will also aid officials in creating policies that have the greatest chances of success. 

For instance, if the data shows that people are clustering at locations such as parks, and thereby exposing others to risk, policymakers could enforce stricter social distancing measures in these areas or ultimately close these spaces temporarily until the virus subsides. Importantly, it can reach these decisions quickly and without committing large amounts of human resource to monitoring physical areas and reporting on how busy they are. 

Directing support to where it is needed

Insights like these can also aid in the distribution of medical equipment and supplies. The high volume of patients who are now arriving at hospitals in short periods of time means that health services face a new challenge – that of allocating resources efficiently in order to cope with spikes in demand. Needless to say, adapting to these changes is not easy; however, it can be made easier through the help of AI and big data. 

The World Bank has already been employing maps to determine which areas are served by which hospitals, and then using this information to inform strategies that would best serve the local population’s medical needs. In doing so, hospitals can be better prepared to redistribute resources based on where they are needed the most.  

Diagnosing the virus 

Being able to effectively diagnose COVID-19 patients is the only way of managing the effects of the virus. To do so, however, clinicians need to be able to quickly and accurately turn around diagnoses to determine who currently has the virus (and what symptoms they are presenting with), who has already overcome it, and who has not yet been infected. The task at hand is momentous: it involves testing huge portions of the population, and quickly.  

We have noted above the speed and accuracy with which AI typically operates. These again are crucial traits that can lend a much needed helping hand to those on the front line. Many HealthTech companies have already created solutions to this problem by developing better ways to diagnose patients – by relying on the assistance of trained AI algorithms which can locate the virus on images of patient’s lungs, clinicians have new tools with which to detect and monitor the virus more effectively. 

Even more importantly, these AI-powered tech solutions can greatly enhance speed, preventing imaging departments from having to wait hours to receive the results of CT scans. According to Chinese tech giant Alibaba, for instance, the system it has developed for diagnosing COVID-19 can make a determination in just 20 seconds. By comparison, a human clinician will typically spend 15 minutes on this task; that is time that could be spent treating someone in a critical state. 

Finding a treatment 

In this battle, time is of the essence. This also extends to finding a cure – there are suggestions that before the world can return to normal, we need to find a vaccine that is capable of eradicating the virus and thereby safeguarding populations from the risk it carries. 

Data scientists are once again relying on support from intelligent technologies to aid in drug discovery and ultimately find an effective cure. Rather than wasting precious time on testing new compounds, UK-based BenevolentAI for instance is utilising AI and machine learning to search through its extensive database of existing approved drugs, in the hopes that it will be able to locate one that could be repurposed to provide an effective cure for this novel coronavirus. 

Other AI companies, meanwhile, are using deep learning models to search for new molecules that could be used to create new treatments, should the necessary compounds not already exist. 

The challenge of successfully combating COVID-19 is a mammoth task. However, I have every faith that with the help of powerful new technologies, data scientists, healthcare providers and policy makers can work together to find the answers and ultimately protect populations from the threat that the virus poses. 

Nikolas Kairinos is the chief executive officer and founder of Fountech.ai, an umbrella company to three specialist firms: Fountech.Solutions, Fountech.Ventures and Fountech.Science. Fountech.ai is driving innovation in the AI sector, helping consumers, businesses and governments understand how this technology is making the world a better place. 

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