Coronavirus Outbreak - Is AI The Answer?

February 21, 2020

Coronavirus Outbreak - Is AI The Answer?

Corona used to be the embodiment of late nights and good times, but after the well known beer’s namesake took the world by storm in December 2019, people around the globe have come to associate the “Corona” name with the deadly respiratory virus that originated in Wuhan, China. Recently, the virus was renamed Covid-19 and at the date of which this blog post was published, over 75 685 people are infected whilst over 2 236 have lost their lives. Scientists are working around the clock to find a cure whilst inhibiting widespread panic, fortunately emerging tech such as artificial intelligence has made it easier to contain and potentially cure this deadly virus.

AI in Virus Tracking

AI researchers are utilising machine learning (ML) techniques to comb through online data sources in an effort to identify early infection cases. The CIO at Harvard Medical School, John Brownstein, forms part of an international team tasked with using ML to analyse these data sources and identify possible cases outside of China. The ML program is able to identify social media posts (among other data sources) which contain certain symptom related keywords, while Natural Language Processing (NLP) deciphers these data sources and distinguishes between users complaining about symptoms compared to users that are merely sharing news. According to Brownstein, the program has proven to be capable of spotting individual cases in large volumes of data, and as the virus continues to spread and more data becomes available, scientists will be able to use the results generated to study how the virus behaves. 

Several Chinese tech firms have also developed a variety of tracking apps that allow users to check if they have used the same public transport system as a confirmed Coronavirus victim. The most common Covid-19 symptom is fever, thus residents in infected areas are making use of hand-held thermometers to identify whether or not a person has contracted the virus. Hand-held thermometers are an unfeasible option for public transport systems, thus Chinese search giant, Baidu, developed a system capable of scanning individual body temperatures in large crowds. This AI-based system is currently utilised at Qinghe railway station in China, and relies on facial recognition and infrared cameras to detect travelers with a body temperature of 37.3° and above. If a person’s temperature is above 37.3°, an alarm is triggered to alert station staff. The system also automatically photograph’s each person and is able to check 200 people per minute, making it faster than airport thermal scanners. 

AI in Virus Treatment

The genetic material of a virus differs from DNA, in that it is single stranded (RNA) and can thus mutate at an exceptionally fast rate, making the Corona virus difficult to cure. Insilico Medicine, an AI company that focuses on drug discovery and development, is currently utilizing advanced AI-systems to identify possible treatments. According to Fortune, Insilico’s AI-system only took 4 days to discover thousands of new molecules which could potentially assist in developing medicine to treat the virus at hand. Insilico has combed through these new molecules and will soon synthesize and test the most promising treatments, while also making their library of molecular structures available to other researchers. 

Alibaba and Baidu, two of China’s biggest tech companies, have also joined the fight against Covid-19. Baidu, who operates China's largest search engine, recently gave scientists access to their AI-computing capacity and LinearFold algorithm, which reduces RNA structure prediction time to a mere 27 seconds. In January, the Cloud division of Alibaba announced that they will allow research institutions free-use of their AI-computing capabilities. Alibaba has been conducting genomics research since 2015, and while the company is popular as an online shopping platform, Alibaba additionally  provides data analytics and computing power to one of the worlds largest genomics organisations, Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). Alibaba Cloud has done extensive genome research prior to the outbreak and has even broken the world record for high-precision whole-genome sequencing speed, completing the 120 hour process in just 15 minutes. 

AI also plays a vital role in protecting medical staff from virus contaminated environments. TMiRob, a medical robot development company situated in Shanghai, deployed over 42 intelligent disinfection robots to various hospitals in infected areas. The disinfectant robots are able to autonomously complete numerous tasks, reducing the risk health care professionals face when operating in infected areas. According to Zhang Kejun, TMiRob’s General Manager, each robot can carry 1500ml of disinfectant, which is equivalent to 3 hours of nonstop labour. Medical robots are also being used in quarantine and isolation wards to aid those who are quarantined, without risking infection. The two robots deployed at Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital are rumoured to be the first robots deployed in quarantine wards. These specific robots complete different tasks, in that one transports and distributes medicine and food, while the other transports contaminated items and medical waste. Additionally, these robots lighten the workload tremendously in that they are able to work between 6 to 8 hours after charging for 20 minutes and autonomously goes to a charging point when their power is running low. 

The world has declared war against Covid-19, but unfortunately it’s notoriously difficult to fight an enemy you can’t see. This global outbreak has spurred numerous entities to join forces and work towards the common goal of containing and curing this disease, and with AI in our arsenal, we might even win the war. 

Sharen van Lill

Marketing Manager

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