What If We Could Fight Coronavirus with Artificial Intelligence?
European Parliamentary Research Service
Analytics have changed the way disease outbreaks are tracked and managed, thereby saving lives. The international community is currently focused on the 2019-2020 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, first identified in Wuhan, China. As it spreads, raising fears of a worldwide pandemic, international organisations and scientists are using artificial intelligence (AI) to track the epidemic in real-time, to effectively predict where the virus might appear next and develop an effective response.
On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) received the first report of a suspected novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan. Amid concerns that the global response is fractured and uncoordinated, the WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations (IHR) on 30 January 2020. Warnings about the novel coronavirus spreading beyond China were raised by AI systems more than a week before official information about the epidemic was released by international organisations. A health monitoring start-up correctly predicted the spread of COVID-19, using natural-language processing and machine learning. Decisions during such an outbreak need to be made on an urgent basis, often in the context of scientific uncertainty, fear, distrust, and social and institutional disruption. How can AI technologies be used to manage this type of global health emergency, without undermining protection of fundamental values and human rights?
Potential impacts and developments
In the case of COVID-19, AI has been used mostly to help detect whether people have novel coronavirus through the detection of visual signs of COVID-19 on images from lung CT scans; to monitor, in real time, changes in body temperature through the use of wearable sensors; and to provide an open-source data platform to track the spread of the disease. AI could process vast amounts of unstructured text data to predict the number of potential new cases by area and which types of populations will be most at risk, as well as evaluate and optimise strategies for controlling the spread of the epidemic. Other AI applications can deliver medical supplies by drone, disinfect patient rooms and scan approved drug databases (for other illnesses) that might also work against COVID-19. AI technologies have been harnessed to come up with new molecules that could serve as potential medications or even accelerate the time taken to predict the virus’s RNA secondary structure. A series of risk assessment algorithmsfor COVID-19 for use in healthcare settings have been developed, including an algorithm for the main actions that need to be followed for managing contacts of probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases, as developed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Certain AI applications can also detect fake news about the disease by applying machine-learning techniques for mining social media information, tracking down words that are sensational or alarming, and identifying which online sources are deemed authoritative for fighting what has been called an infodemic. Facebook, Google, Twitter and TikTok have partnered with the WHO to review and expose false information about COVID-19.
In public health emergency response management, derogating from an individual’s rights of privacy, nondiscrimination and freedom of movement in the name of the urgency of the situation can sometimes take the form of restrictive measures that include domestic containment strategies without due process, or medical examination without informed consent. In the case of COVID-19, AI applications such as the use of facial recognition to track people not wearing masks in public, or AI-based fever detection systems, as well as the processing of data collected on digital platforms and mobile networks to track a person’s recent movements, have contributed to draconian enforcement of restraining measures for the confinement of the outbreak for unspecified durations. Chinese search giant Baidu has developed a system using infrared and facial recognition technology that scans and takes photographs of more than 200 people per minute at the Qinghe railway station in Beijing. In Moscow, authorities are using automated facial recognition technology to scan surveillance camera footage in an attempt to identify recent arrivals from China, placed under quarantine for fear of COVID-19 infection and not expected to enter the station. Finally, Chinese authorities are deploying dronesto patrol public places, conduct thermal imaging, or to track people violating quarantine rules.
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