Editorial

Governments find a powerful Pandemic-fighting tool: AI

US, South Korea and Taiwan leading the charge – using Artificial Intelligence to speed up the development of testing kits and treatments, track the spread of the virus and provide their citizens with real-time information updates

Posted 31 March 2020 by Gary Flood


Countries around the world, including the US, South Korea and Taiwan, have turned to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

With the technology being applied in everything from attempting to speed up the development of testing kits and treatments, track the spread of the virus, and to provide citizens with real-time information, the tech is truly being tested at scale.  

The news comes from a round-up published at the end of last week over at Global Government Forum, which details how

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in South Korea, the government asked the private sector to develop testing regimes as soon as possible, which local molecular biotech company Seegene has done by harnessing AI to speed up the development of a testing solution it was able to give the government just three weeks after its scientists began working on it. The company’s founder and chief executive, Chun Jong-yoon, told CNN that were it not for AI that would have taken two to three months, while elsewhere in the Republic, The Korea Herald reports that telecoms firm KT has teamed up with government ministries to develop an AI-based healthcare service that could track the spread of the virus.

In other applications of AI during these first few months of the Pandemic of 2020: 

Chinese scientists recreated the genome sequence of COVID-19 in a month, aided by AI, while doing the same thing for SARS in 2003 using more traditional methods took several times as long

NBC News reported that Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang used AI to create real-time digital updates alerting citizens to avoid locations where infections had been detected, plus provide a live map of local face mask availability

AI is also being used to pool thousands of articles on known coronaviruses, making them easily searchable by medical researchers. In the US, for example, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for the creation of the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a machine-readable coronavirus literature collection of over 44,000 scholarly articles for use by the global research community created by the Allen Institute for AI, Microsoft and a number of research groups. One of the most immediate and impactful applications of AI is in the ability to help scientists, academics, and technologists find the right information in a sea of scientific papers to move research faster,” said Dr. Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for AI.

The White House has asked the nation’s AI experts to develop new data mining techniques that can help the scientific community answer high-priority scientific questions related to COVID-19, with Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Eric Horvitz, warning, “We need to come together as companies, governments, and scientists and work to bring our best technologies to bear across biomedicine, epidemiology, AI, and other sciences. The COVID-19 literature resource and challenge will stimulate efforts that can accelerate the path to solutions on COVID-19.” 

It is also understood executives from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook met UK officials at Downing Street on 11 March to discuss their role in the coronavirus crisis, including in modelling and tracking data using AI techniques.  In the UK, private sector tech companies such as UK-based BenevolentAI say they are using AI to crunch vast amounts of public data to find existing drugs that could be used to treat coronavirus patients before a vaccine becomes available, according to The Telegraph.  “The opportunity for AI to speed up the discovery of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics is huge, especially for rapidly-mutating RNA-viruses like Covid where a broad-spectrum approach is needed,” Atomwise chief executive and co-founder, Abraham Heifets, told the newspaper. 

Intriguingly, BlueDot, a global AI database company which uses algorithms, machine learning, and natural language processing to analyse information from a multitude of sources and track over a hundred infectious diseases, sent out a warning to customers to avoid Wuhan on 31 December – a warning was issued before both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organisation, which did not send out a notice until 9 January.