This is not the first time plagues have shaped human history

The truth is that plagues have been with us for centuries – from the Great Plague of Athens in 430 BC, through the Black Death in the 14th century, right up to the HIV/Aids pandemic in the early 1980s.

With all those examples from previous plagues, one would expect that we have learned how to deal with plagues – especially with the emergence of sophisticated technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

AI can help fight Covid-19 and here's why

AI is a tool that humans leverage to do tasks that are difficult or impossible to do using normal methods. But like any other tool, it must be fit for purpose and must work side by side with humans. And in the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) use case, this is even more important.

Here are four ways we are leveraging AI technology:

1. It helps us identify Covid-19 cases quickly

Bluedot, an AI company based in Toronto, Canada was one of the first organisations to pick up the emergence of Covid-19 in the Hubei province in China back in December 2019. The company’s artificial intelligence algorithms go through hundreds of thousands of news and social media posts to track the onset of events such as disease outbreaks and how they would spread.

In conjunction with epidemiologists, they ‘correctly predicted that Covid-19 would jump from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo’.

DarwinAI and researchers from the University of Waterloo are working on solutions to leverage AI to analyse images of X-rays in order to quickly and cost-effectively identify patients who are infected.

The teams are using AI algorithms in a field called Computer Vision, which trains AI how to analyse images. While the proposed solution is still in its early stages, it highlights one potential use case of artificial intelligence.

READ MORE: Find out how South Korea used AI voicebots to monitor and report back on people's vitals in quarantine.

2. The use of AI can help to find a vaccine much faster

An employee wearing a protective mask and glove shows a throat swab sample for Covid-19 testing at home at the Labor Dr. Heidrich & Kollegen MVZ GmbH medical lab on April 16, 2020 in Hamburg, Germany

One of the benefits of AI is that it can crunch huge amounts of data and find patterns hidden within.

This is helping researching scientists go through numerous research papers at a much faster rate around previous Coronaviruses, such as SARS and other historical outbreaks, in an attempt to figure out patterns of the current pandemic and ways to stop it from spreading.

Another way AI is being used in the search for a vaccine is in protein folding. Many diseases are caused by interacting proteins between your body and a virus or bacteria. So, figuring out how those proteins fold and interact to cause illnesses, is sometimes computationally intensive.

This is where AI can help. In fact, tools such as AlphaFold, which is being developed by Deep Blue, is already uncovering new protein folds that would have taken us years or even decades to uncover. It has the potential to speed up the discovery of new vaccines.

3. Artificial intelligence can help with scenario planning

Scenario planning for governments, health practitioners and business owners often involves the crunching of huge amounts of data, to predict what might happen in the future.

Although the Covid-19 virus is largely unprecedented, the rate of spread is generating data sets that will soon hit critical mass. Different stakeholders are starting to leverage AI in coming up with different scenarios – ranging from how to stop it from spreading further, to analysing the different economic impacts of the pandemic.

More importantly, efforts around ‘flattening the curve’ greatly benefited from crunching huge data sets and leveraging AI to come up with the best way forward in the absence of a vaccine or a cure.

Preparing society for an AI-infused future
Preparing society for an AI-infused future

A Professor in robotics and machine learning explains what AI is and decodes its impact of on society in Africa in this fascinating Investec Focus Talk.

4. It can enable working and learning from home to keep us moving

Many people are working from home now. With AI and robotic process automation (RPA) techniques, companies are automating some of the mundane tasks that would have required an individual to be present. With the use of this technology, operations can keep us moving.

Of course, the dynamics of working from home are different from being in the office. Technology is ensuring that employees working from the safety of their homes and involve themselves in critical tasks and where they are adding the most value – but can also experience new fulfillment in their jobs.

Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and WebEx are all using AI algorithms to make sure work conference calls are as productive as possible.

Conclusion: the human factor is still vital

The emphasis is that AI is a tool that requires humans to be in the loop for it to be effective and efficient at scale. The interaction between man and machine has never been more important, especially in unprecedented times such as the ones we find ourselves in.

That being said, AI technology is not only giving us ways to analyse pandemics and create new scenarios in ways we have never been able to do before, it is also helping us adjust to the new way of doing things by helping us work from anywhere and at any time.


Did you enjoy this post from Houston Muzamhindo?

Read ‘Forget the Terminator– 3 types of AI’.

Houston Muzamhindo

Houston Muzamhindo works in Investec Private Banking in the field of Analytics and Data Science. He holds a BSc in Computational and Applied Mathematics, Wits University, PDM, Wits Business School and PGD in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, Columbia University. He is the founder of a free online education platform called IQmates. He was also inducted as a TEDx Johannesburg 1830 Fellow. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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