Healthcare, Technology

Was The World Short-changed by AI For COVID-19?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

COVID-19 came hitting hard at the very fabric of our culture, we were ill-prepared for it. Billions of people worldwide are under lockdown, thousands have died, and more are still dying. 

Globally, governments, businesses, and individuals are confused, facing an uncertain economic future. Without mincing words, the world was completely unprepared for COVID-19 despite our technological advancements in the areas of AI and machine learning, hence, we are suffering the consequences and direly so. 

It is on record that an artificial intelligence company called BlueDot was the first to notice that something weird was going on and, therefore, went ahead to alert the world of a cluster of “unusual pneumonia” cases occurring around a market in Wuhan, China, about the midnight of December 30, 2019. The company likened the symptoms to those of the SARS, an outbreak that was experienced in 2003.

Incidentally, before the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Chinese authorities eventually got around to informing us nearly a week after the emergence of COVID-19, it was late and the harm had been done. The question is, how did we get it wrong? 

It would have been expected that since we have progressed so much with AI the next thing would have been to dust our books and then get to work, but we failed.  

Though, Professor Richard Kuhn was reported to have said, “If health officials could have taken action earlier and contained the outbreak in Wuhan, where the first cases were reported, the global clampdown could have been at a much more local level.” We, however, can never know this to be certain since we have not been able to do much with AI after the facts were known.

In an interview granted CNBC by an epidemiologist, physician, and professor Dr. Kamran Khan, it was revealed that doctors are usually not privy to information about infectious diseases from government agencies and most times have to rely on the internet to be abreast of real-time information. This shouldn’t be the scenario since an AI-enabled algorithm has the capability to sort and collate relevant data faster and in scale than humans.  

Communication as the key 

What level of communication did we pass across? It’s not enough to believe that AI can garner the necessary information and even at scale without doing anything about it. 

When the world as enabled by AI gets the information, the next thing is to pass it around. It’s absolutely necessary, the world needs to communicate valuable information to the public. 

If this is not done, there is no way we could have gone about containing the spread of COVID-19, which is the situation we are grappling with right now. The World Health Organization partnered with WhatsApp and Facebook to create an AI-enabled chatbot that will provide vital information to users through their smartphones. 

Was that deployed at this crucial time? 

We have the chatbot that we could have easily deployed to provide updated information that is related to the COVID-19 pandemic hence, teaching us how to protect ourselves. Governments had the ability to use AI to track public sentiment, which would have provided officials with the necessary insight into what people are thinking or saying about the disease. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t do the obvious, that which was necessary. We played to the gallery, nations were more focused on who to blame for the pandemic, and we ended up leaving the obvious. 

Passing across the information that could then be tailored to this sentiment, effectively educating the public when they are wrong, or reinforcing information that can help stop the spread of COVID-19 was politicized. Where has that led us?  

Healthcare workers 

We went it possibly all wrong, where we should probably use AI to power robotic cleaners that can clean hospitals, humans are being used instead. This singular lapse created an avenue for humans to become more exposed to the virus. 

However, it was reported that China made use of navigational AI algorithms to help ambulances reach patients faster, while robots were used in public spaces to warn people who were not wearing face-masks. This should have been the global approach and not a case in isolation, after all, COVID-19 has refused to acknowledge boundaries or races.

Sharing of technology 

There was a report that Korean scientists were able to use a deep learning-based model to predict an effective vaccine. COVID-19 is able to invade human cells through a “spike” protein, which binds to a human cell and is then able to infect the said cell.  

The report revealed that the spike protein of a coronavirus can bind with another molecule (antibodies), thereby, ensuring the prevention of infecting human cells by the virus. From these predictions, the model detected four antivirals that could potentially bind COVID-19.

If we had actually wanted to reap all the benefits inherent in AI, the works by scientists across the globe deploying deep-learning should have been given prominence by the WHO.  

Scientists are not taking things lying low, they are seriously using deep learning algorithms to accurately detect COVID-19 from CT scans of the chest. It has even been reported that they have been able to develop a mobile digital X-ray system that uses AI cloud-based software to help with early diagnosis. 

There is a report that plans are ongoing to design the machine so that it can be installed in public places like train stations and airports. 

Correctly deploying AI 

It may be wishful thinking if we assume that this is the last pandemic that humans will experience, however, it’s quite clear that we desperately need to combine human intelligence with the power of machine learning before we can effectively tackle the problem we have at our hands and for any future occurrences. Apart from being able to integrate AI to develop vaccines faster, in real-time and at scale time than humans could, it will even go a long way in detecting disorders before they become pandemic. 

For some time now, it has been acclaimed that AI has been playing an important role in healthcare if we don’t appropriately deploy AI, we can’t say we are being short-changed. 

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About John Ejiofor

John Ejiofor is a curious life-researcher, whose quest to finding answers to life's pertinent questions has led to founding Nature Torch. This blog aims to debate and explore many questions about our earth -- including those a lot of people are uncomfortable with asking. He has been published on some of the internet's most respected websites, which you can find online.
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