DUBAI: Four months into the battle against the latest strain of the coronavirus, it is clear that humanity must deploy all medical and technological tools at its disposal.
Roughly half the global population has been placed on lockdown and billions of dollars are being poured into vaccine research, yet the total number of confirmed cases worldwide has hit the two million mark.
With no sign of an imminent breakthrough, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to speed up the search for an antidote to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19 is a no-brainer.
In fact, scientific institutions and governments have already been harnessing AI to generate possible solutions to the global public-health emergency.
Shameer Thaha, CSO at Accubits, a UAE-based AI and blockchain focused solutions and development company, says AI is playing a key role since day one of the fight against humanity’s common foe.
AI is assisting medical professionals to identity components of a vaccine by “analyzing viral protein structures” and helping researchers scan through thousands of research papers, according to Thaha.
Recently, Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold was used to predict structures of proteins associated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“There are three types of vaccines: Whole-pathogen vaccines, subunit vaccines, and nucleic acid vaccines,” Thaha said, adding that the last is the kind of vaccine needed to target the coronavirus.
“Nucleic acid vaccines inject the genetic material of the pathogen into human cells to stimulate an immune response … and AI is useful in accelerating the development of subunit and nucleic acid vaccines,” Thaha said.
Electronic tracking of individuals is another activity that is benefiting from advances in AI in recent years.
Governments and police forces in many cities are utilizing AI-powered video analytics software and computer vision to ensure that people are obeying lockdown rules and maintaining social distance.
These tools can detect everything from large crowds in public spaces to the number of people not wearing a mask, while automatically alerting the local police department to take action, said Thaha.
In this regard, he cited a Pandemic Management System developed by his company, which has contracts with DP World in Dubai and Saudi Aramco in the Kingdom, as an AI tool that is proving useful for authorities.
The system uses AI to conduct exposure analysis of the infection and makes attempts to identity areas at high risk in advance, said Thaha.
He said governments can enlist the help of AI-based systems to contain the spread of the virus by “easily monitoring the location of people in self-isolation or quarantine and tracking routes traveled by newly identified coronavirus positive patients.”
According to Karen K. Burns, co-founder and CEO of Visory, a computer vision AI company with an urban technology focus, various degrees of surveillance methods are being used by countries during the coronavirus crisis.
While some can take part in active monitoring of individuals in quarantine, others can carry out general checks on public places.
“It is still impossible to monitor every single individual at the scale of an entire country,” Burns said, adding that “it is also not desirable from the point of view of privacy.”
Elaborating on the issue, she said: “AI’s key strength, in our view, is utilizing it more as a tool to understand whether or not people are actually doing things like social distancing and staying at home rather than using it for surveillance of individuals.”
For example, many governments are using computer vision to detect how close people are to each other and how long they stay close to each other.
In Europe, according to Burns, AI is being used by governments to predict activities that could cause the coronavirus to spread.
By the same token, face recognition and computer vision are being used to enforce curfews, she said.
One of the clear downsides of the sharp increase in governments’ dependence on AI tools is the possible abuse of information collected from its citizens.
However, until mankind sees at least a glimmer of hope of halting the pandemic, whether privacy protection or public health will receive priority is anybody’s guess.