AI and control of Covid-19
the Ad hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) secretariat
Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used as a tool to support the fight against the viral pandemic that has affected the entire world since the beginning of 2020. The press and the scientific community are echoing the high hopes that data science and AI can be used to confront the coronavirus (D. Yakobovitch, How to fight the Coronavirus with AI and Data Science, Medium, 15 February 2020) and “fill in the blanks” still left by science (G. Ratnam, Can AI Fill in the Blanks About Coronavirus? Think So Experts, Government Technology, 17 March 2020).
China, the first epicentre of this disease and renowned for its technological advance in this field, has tried to use this to its real advantage. Its uses seem to have included support for measures restricting the movement of populations, forecasting the evolution of disease outbreaks and research for the development of a vaccine or treatment. With regard to the latter aspect, AI has been used to speed up genome sequencing, make faster diagnoses, carry out scanner analyses or, more occasionally, handle maintenance and delivery robots (A. Chun, In a time of coronavirus, China’s investment in AI is paying off in a big way, South China Morning post, 18 March 2020).
Its contributions, which are also undeniable in terms of organising better access to scientific publications or supporting research, does not eliminate the need for clinical test phases nor does it replace human expertise entirely. The structural issues encountered by health infrastructures in this crisis situation are not due to technological solutions but to the organisation of health services, which should be able to prevent such situations occurring (Article 11 of the European Social Charter). Emergency measures using technological solutions, including AI, should also be assessed at the end of the crisis. Those that infringe on individual freedoms should not be trivialised on the pretext of a better protection of the population. The provisions of Convention 108+ should in particular continue to be applied.
The contribution of artificial intelligence to the search for a cure
The first application of AI expected in the face of a health crisis is certainly the assistance to researchers to find a vaccine able to protect caregivers and contain the pandemic. Biomedicine and research rely on a large number of techniques, among which the various applications of computer science and statistics have already been making a contribution for a long time. The use of AI is therefore part of this continuity.
The predictions of the virus structure generated by AI have already saved scientists months of experimentation. AI seems to have provided significant support in this sense, even if it is limited due to so-called “continuous” rules and infinite combinatorics for the study of protein folding. The American start-up Moderna has distinguished itself by its mastery of a biotechnology based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) for which the study of protein folding is essential. It has managed to significantly reduce the time required to develop a prototype vaccine testable on humans thanks to the support of bioinformatics, of which AI is an integral part.
Similarly, Chinese technology giant Baidu, in partnership with Oregon State University and the University of Rochester, published its Linearfold prediction algorithm in February 2020 to study the same protein folding. This algorithm is much faster than traditional algorithms in predicting the structure of a virus’ secondary ribonucleic acid (RNA) and provides scientists with additional information on how viruses spread. The prediction of the secondary structure of the RNA sequence of Covid-19 would thus have been calculated by Linearfold in 27 seconds instead of 55 minutes (Baidu, How Baidu is bringing AI to the fight against coronavirus, MIT Technology Review, 11 March 2020). DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has also shared its predictions of coronavirus protein structures with its AlphaFold AI system (J. Jumper, K. Tunyasuvunakool, P. Kohli, D. Hassabis et al, Computational predictions of protein structures associated with COVID-19, DeepMind, 5 March 2020). IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have also provided the computing power of their servers to the US authorities to process very large datasets in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modelling (F. Lardinois, IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft partner with White House to provide compute resources for COVID-19 research, Techcrunch, 22 March 2020).