COVID-19 and AI: Governments and Scientific Community Turn to AI through Emergency Initiatives and Programs
As governments, researchers, developers, and other stakeholders in the health care sector race against time to find ways of curbing the deadly spread of Covid-19, Artificial Intelligence in the form of Machine Learning (ML) technologies, is proving indispensable in the response to the pandemic. Apart from it playing a significant role in the study of the virus and diagnosing individuals, experts are also relying on machine learning to test the efficacy of possible treatments being worked on and to assess the impact of the pandemic on public health systems. It is also contributing immensely to determining rates of infection across various demographics.
Even before this outbreak, the place of machine learning and other disciplines of artificial intelligence in healthcare delivery had been firmly established. The American National Health Institute published a whitepaper last year on machine learning in healthcare in which experts at a co-organized workshop on the subject discussed ways to incorporate ML tools in the production of quality research that would ultimately improve healthcare delivery. “Machine Intelligence (MI) is rapidly becoming an important approach across biomedical discovery, clinical research, medical diagnostics/devices, and precision medicine. Such tools can uncover new possibilities for researchers, physicians, and patients, allowing them to make more informed decisions and achieve better outcomes… In healthcare, the potential of MI to improve patient outcomes — across the spectrum from clinical research through hospital care — is significant”, National Institute of Health.
As Covid-19 continues to wear on the global economy and disrupt people’s way of life, there is a rush in the scientific community with researchers working around the clock to give meaning to available data that could be useful to advancing the search for a solution. One of the many hopes for easing lockdowns is to be able to quickly and accurately identify people who might have been exposed to the virus. Machine learning is being employed to make contact tracing which is largely carried out by humans in a detective-like in-person interviews, less tedious and more expeditious. Researchers and developers across the world are dedicating resources to developing mobile phone apps that would automate contact tracing processes to find and identify people that a person with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis may have infected.
Plagued by privacy issues and incompatibility across the various operating systems, developers have widely welcomed the rare partnership between Apple and Google to develop a common contact tracing platform on which these apps would run. However, this is not a sure bet as most people would have to download and use these apps to achieve the needed result. Besides, there are still deliberations about the accuracy of the information that the apps would provide and how effectively they can mitigate the risk of hacking.
Governments and international organizations are investing more in the development of science and innovation policies. More scientific collaborations are being formed across borders in an effort to beat the pandemic. But most of these initiatives are being led by big pharma and well-funded institutions which already have the resources to pursue these new innovations. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has published open data for AI initiatives of various governments’ calls for contributions from AI experts to contribute to finding a way out of the Covid-19 crisis.
In the US for instance, the government there is encouraging AI experts to apply text and data mining tools to help streamline the growing body of research publications on the virus and other coronaviruses that preceded it. This is to ensure that as the literature on Covid-19 grows, answers to certain vital questions surrounding the diagnosis, transmission, lessons, and recommendations from previous studies, would not get lost in the pile.
Additionally, the European Commission launched an initiative to collate ideas and best practices on how to apply AI and robotics solutions to fighting this unprecedented global health crisis. The aim is to build a repository that is accessible to citizens and stakeholders while contributing to the larger Europe-wide response to the pandemic. To this end, it invited individuals and organisations that have developed or are in the process of developing AI systems and tools that help in the detection, treatment, and prevention of Covid-19. This initiative is backed by a 5 million Euro funding stream seeking to attract the best ideas in the field to stop the spread of this deadly virus.
Relatedly, the EC also made available information on how to access funding for AI, data and robotics projects that would help in the fight against Covid-19. Here is the official announcement by the European Commission; SC1-PHE-CORONAVIRUS-2020–2B — Medical technologies, Digital tools and Artificial Intelligence (AI) analytics to improve surveillance and care at high Technology Readiness Levels (TRL). Proposals are expected to be submitted before June 11, 2020. However, the commission organized webinars to offer an overview of the various topics covered by the call ie. data analytics for surveillance, robotics, AI for telemedicine, development of protective medical equipment as well as data-driven services for diagnostics, prognostic technologies, etc.
The UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) recently launched a Hackathon to allow for the sharing of ideas by data scientists, businesses and biomedical researchers on the best ways to apply AI technologies in the fight against Covid-19. Funding would be made available to companies and SMEs with excellent innovative proposals that can be developed to better understand and respond to the Covid-19 health crisis and its impacts. Support is also being given to ideas that seek to enhance the manufacture or adoption of interventions in the medical and scientific fields as well as those that could expedite the gathering of critical data and resources for various research interests around the pandemic.
Brainstorming Best Practices
Europe’s AI on-Demand Platform, AI4EU is also mobilising the continent’s best brains in AI to share ideas for fast and efficient solutions to this unprecedented global crisis. The platform which is host to a community of experts in various AI technologies, started a discussion on the subject on its website which generated copious amounts of research and ongoing innovative work being done across the field as pertains to Covid-19. During a recent AI4EU Web Cafe — weekly virtual live sessions with experts from specific areas of interest within the AI domain — members of the European AI community got to present and form collaborative groups to advance the latest AI developments towards finding solutions to the problem. Similar discussions are also taking place on the platform’s website to find ways of moving these ideas forward.
The OECD has been studying the Science and Innovation policy responses by various countries since the pandemic was declared. The response to the outbreak varies from country to country and so by monitoring the S&I policy approaches at the country level, the organization is creating an up-to-date repository of responses and initiatives that would allow governments and other relevant stakeholders to compare notes and learn about what is working and what needs improvement. The OECD has also been compiling emergency research funding initiatives across various scientific domains targeted at finding fast and lasting solutions. These initiatives are at both the national and international levels and cut across the fields of diagnostics, vaccines, societal responses, epidemiology, therapeutics, etc.
These are but few of the several hundreds of initiatives and programs being developed to expedite the response to the pandemic and its impacts on economies and social life as we know it. There are more cross-sectoral collaborations taking place beyond borders as this novel coronavirus continues to bite. Artificial Intelligence technologies are proving critical in the search for solutions and these initiatives and collaborations only bode hope for a future in which Covid-19 is managed to mitigate its impact on lives and economies across the globe.
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