How AI and Other Technologies Are Tackling Coronavirus

Artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and drones are being leveraged to battle coronavirus—but technology by itself isn’t the answer.

As the shadow of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to loom large around the world, many governments, researchers and other organizations are feverishly trying to prevent the outbreak from worsening. Increasingly, they’re turning to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and drones to bolster their efforts.

More than 90,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in more than 60 countries, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths through March 2, demonstrating the need to curb the outbreak. But several members of CompTIA’s advisory councils caution that technology alone can’t lessen the threat of coronavirus or any other health risk. Rather, it takes time, resources and money to effectively plan and develop the creative, innovative technology solutions that might help.

AI Solutions, Not AI Technology, Provide the Most Promise

Artificial intelligence technology by itself cannot accurately predict of a coronavirus-type event—and AI algorithms that try to do so can only be as good as the data used to build them, cautions Manoj Suvarna, business leader, high-performance computing and AI (North America), at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a member of CompTIA’s AI Advisory Council. And therein lies the problem.

Data streams are notoriously inconsistent, unreliable and potentially inaccurate. Several key issues, including a lack of data sharing, a need for local data/models and higher quality data sets, need to be addressed for researchers to better predict future. Unfortunately, getting better data is easier said than done,

Today, researchers from around the world are using a variety of AI techniques including natural language processing (to scan mobile phone data, text and messages) and facial recognition (to detect signs of fatigue, infrared temperature sensing to identify above normal body temperatures in a crowd), said Suvarna.

“The amount of data getting logged every day, every minute, could assist in building AI algorithms to further narrow down the cause of the spread or the likelihood of the next possible location being affected,” Suvarna said. “AI tools could also assist in predicting the economic impact to businesses and countries based on logistic delays, supply chain disruption, manufacturing productivity, employee attendance and more.”

While sophisticated AI tools have been available for the last several years, there has been limited awareness of real-world applications outside of research labs and large enterprises. That should change going forward as the adoption of emerging technologies escalates and use cases become more prevalent, Suvarna said.

“AI practitioners are pushing the limits to see how machines could accelerate the knowledge gathering and analysis phase to shorten the path to insights,” he said.

Researchers are using AI to accelerate clinical trials to find disease cures and there’s a lot of work underway on genome sequencing using high performance computing resources, Suvarna said. “It will ultimately depend on the types of data being aggregated to see if ML algorithms may be able to detect vs. relying solely on human intelligence.”

EmTech on the Front Lines

Other emerging technologies are being leveraged in the battle against outbreaks, like blockchain and drones—though their effectiveness right now might be debatable at best, said CompTIA council members.

China is using a variety of unmanned systems in their response to the outbreak. These are of questionable efficiency and likely represent an ill-informed panic response rather than a thoughtful application of appropriate resources,” said David Kovar, CEO of URSA, Manchester, N.H. “One possible way they could contribute is via the long-promised package delivery model—but supplying the population of a city with critical supplies via unmanned systems would take an enormous investment.”

But that response would not even be legal in the United States, given flight restrictions to drones under current regulations in the U.S., said Douglas Spotted Eagle, Instructor/Examiner UAS at Sundance Media Group, Las Vegas. “I would echo that using drones to battle coronavirus right now would be inefficient, questionable, and look like surveillance,” Spotted Eagle said.

Blockchain Ensures Immutable Data for Tracking

On the other hand, blockchain technology can be effective in the battle against viral outbreaks—if used judiciously, said Neeraj Satija, CEO and CTO of Concordus Applications and chair of CompTIA’s Blockchain Advisory Council.

“During times like these, there is a desperate and urgent need for collaboration between different organizations, governments and governmental agencies. These entities want systems that can only be accessed and updated by people with the right permission,” Satija said. “The data generated in these systems must be shared in the right format with authorized personnel and should be maintained until perpetuity.”

Blockchain technology can be utilized to maintain data provenance in the fight against epidemics like coronavirus, Satija said. That’s important as governments struggle to track movement of people across cities and countries, pharma companies try to develop, test and distribute antidotes, and healthcare providers seek to be more transparent about the source of these drugs and keep an immutable record of the administration of medication to affected patients.

“Blockchain can fulfill all these requirements by building supply chain systems that the government and its partner entities can tap into,” he said.

Overall, we’re in early stages of both emerging technologies and building the real-world solutions that allow us to solve global problems, but we’re getting there, Suvarna said. “All of this is not utopia but entirely feasible given the amount of data, technology access and algorithms available globally today. It will however require a lot more collaboration and sharing of this data without violating human privacy and in good hands.”

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