How AI is Helping Humanity Respond to COVID-19 

Apr 09 2020

By Neama Dadkhahnikoo (Technical Lead of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE) and Devin Krotman (Director of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE)

The COVID-19 global pandemic has infected over one million people and led to nearly 85,000 deaths. The crisis has also upended everyday life for many millions around the world through job losses, shelter in place orders, and the need to socially distance for the foreseeable future. As a result, governments, health organizations, and private companies are working hard to flatten the curve and ramp up the manufacturing of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals, buying much needed time for global scientists to create and test the vaccines necessary for the globe to beat COVID-19. 

The world has not seen a public health crisis of this magnitude in over a century since the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918; however, the modern technology we have at our disposal is the main differentiator that will ideally allow us to overcome COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one such tool that takes many forms and empowers humanity  to collaborate and integrate with machines, so we can win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Current AI  combined with big data is an exponential technology that can drive insights, detect patterns, and uncover new discoveries faster and at a larger scale than humans can do on our own. 

So how does the power of AI work to potentially enable us to overcome COVID-19?

Tracking and prediction: One of the first applications of AI to tackling COVID-19 focuses on the ability to track infected populations and to predict where future outbreaks may occur. Using app technology backed by AI, researchers have developed tools to better understand coronavirus by tracking its spread in real-time and companies such as The Weather Channel have applied IBM’s AI technology to create an app for people to map the spread of COVID-19 and better practice social distancing.

Diagnostics and monitoring: The lack of testing capabilities and the high variability in patient outcomes means that there is an acute need for being able to diagnose and monitor the progress of COVID-19 in patients. The fully-open data set and AI tool, COVID-Net, shows how AI can be used to detect COVID-19 in a chest X-ray by leveraging convolutional neural networks and open data to analyze visual images.

Drug discovery: Perhaps AI’s greatest strength is its ability to process large volumes of data to find a needle in a haystack. It should come as no surprise that many drug and therapeutic companies are using AI in an attempt to rapidly develop vaccine therapies for COVID-19. More specifically a lot of these companies are deploying machine learning algorithms as a way to identify relationships across large amounts of health data, which helps to accelerate the development of vaccine therapies. 

Misinformation: AI tools are even playing a significant role outside “health” areas during the COVID-19 crisis. Many users rely on social media platforms as a primary source of information during this time. As such, misinformation can have deadly consequences for users if left unchecked during a pandemic. Tech companies have turned to AI to monitor misinformation, especially as social distancing has caused their staff to leave the office. While these AI systems are still going through growing pains, they are an important tool in the fight to keep the public healthy and informed.

Rapid Reactions: Entities and tools are being repurposed to fight COVID-19. Within XPRIZE’s very dedicated ecosystem - companies are leveraging and in some cases pivoting their AI work to serve the cause. Over the past four years, XPRIZE and IBM Watson have run the $5 million IBM Watson AI XPRIZE - an XPRIZE competition focused on accelerating the dialogue around “AI for Good”  and human + machine collaboration through concrete proof points. The companies involved with this competition - both current and former - understand AI’s important role in the fight against COVID-19. Examples of their work include:

Aifred Health, a startup based in Montreal, Canada, who uses AI to develop personalized mental health treatments for patients and doctors, has ramped up their remote care and monitoring efforts by assisting doctors in leveraging their tool during “shelter in place” orders. The uncharted times we face as a society require a diligent focus on our mental health in addition to our physical health.

Iris.ai, a startup based in Helsinki, Finland, uses AI to navigate scientific knowledge and facilitate research discoveries. Just recently, they made their tools freely available to COVID-19 researchers, so that they can quickly review medical research literature associated with the virus, thereby accelerating lifesaving scientific breakthroughs.

Arterys, a startup based in San Francisco, California, has developed an AI-powered medical imaging platform to improve disease detection and diagnosis. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arterys opened their platform to developers working on medical image AI models related to COVID-19 and is working with researchers and clinicians around the world to develop more AI tools to fight the pandemic.

As we look and work toward a hopefully not-too-distant future where the world has overcome COVID-19, what will our world and more specifically, our AI-world, look like? A question like this can’t be fully answered, but some initial conjectures can be drawn. 

First off - a common thread from all of the examples of AI combating COVID-19 is the potential scalability and transferability of these applications to future health crises. Not only will AI - in conjunction with human collaboration - serve as a critical tool in helping to overcome the current COVID-19 pandemic, but the specific AI tools being developed now can be leveraged against possible future pandemics. 

Second - and perhaps a more hopeful outcome is that we will see the acceleration of human-centered AI. From the rise of telemedicine to the rapid adoption of working from one’s own home to the changing nature of our enterprises, human + AI collaboration will become the central theme of AI conversations along with the ancillary topics of ethical, responsible, and transparent. 

Only time will tell how these conversations, efforts, and technology will play out, but we at XPRIZE are optimistic for the human + AI future and are working every day to make this future of abundance for all a reality.