World News

How Can AI Help Fight Coronavirus?

How can AI help fight the Coronavirus?

Officials from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook met executives at Downing Street on Wednesday to explain their role in the coronavirus crisis. One of the things addressed was their part in “modeling and tracking data”. In related gatherings at the White House, meanwhile, organizations were asked how they could use artificial intelligence. A World Health Organization statement last month proclaimed AI and big data were a key part of China’s reply to the virus.

Sharing Information 

Facebook is now working with researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and the National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, sharing anonymized data concerning people’s tendencies and high-resolution population density maps, which help them determine the spread of the virus. The social network is also assisting associates to understand how people are discussing the issue online, via tools such as Crowdtangle, which collect social-media posts. In the past, Google search data has been used to trace infectious diseases. To help people who want to track their own health, Google’s Verily is developing a small body-worn temperature patch that transfers data to a phone app. “This could be especially useful in elderly populations, where viral infections have higher rates of morbidity and mortality,” wrote chief executive Sundar Pichai.


Fighting Fake News

As of now, there has not been any extensive study of how much misinformation persists on platforms such as Google and Facebook but it is expected to be abundant. Google reported its team was “working round the clock to safeguard our users from phishing, conspiracy theories, malware and misinformation”. YouTube, meanwhile, is using its homepage to direct users to the World Health Organization and other organizations, for education and information, while removing videos proposing alternative cures as soon as they go live.

Designing Drugs

British start-up Exscienta became the first organization to put an AI-designed drug molecule to human trials beginning this year. It took only 12 months for algorithms to design it, compared with four to five years for conventional research. AI could be used in three ways in the current crisis, according to chief executive Prof Andrew Hopkins: 

  • To quickly produce antibodies and vaccines for the Covid-19 virus 
  • To scan through existing medications to see if any could be repurposed 
  • To produce a drug to fight both the contemporary and later coronavirus outbreaks 

However, he reminded people to be pragmatic about what AI could accomplish. “The fastest this could be done is 18 to 24 months away, because of the manufacturing scale-up and all the safety testing that needs to be done,” he declared.

Google-owned AI company DeepMind has adopted its AlphaFold system to present structure forecasts of various proteins linked with the virus. These have not yet been experimentally validated but DeepMind anticipates this will ease the scientific community’s understanding of how the virus works. Experts at both DeepMind and Exscienta praised the way those at the forefront of the crisis had so quickly delivered data, which would be vital for any algorithms seeking a cure.

Robots as Janitors

Meanwhile, Prof Sabine Hauert, at Bristol University, told BBC News AI could surely make everyday life more accessible during the crisis. “It can also be used to put people out of harm’s way, for example using robots to clean hospitals, or telepresence systems for remote meeting, consultations, or simply to connect with loved ones,” she affirmed.

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