Almost every country in the world has been impacted in some form or the other by the COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic. On April 1, the number of people infected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) exceeded 858,000 globally, with over 42,000 dead. This life-threatening virus started its journey from a wet market located in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. Ever since jumping from animals to humans, it has spread to more than 200 countries. The resulting pandemic has also stalled the global economic growth, with fears now being expressed of a global recession like what happened in 2008.
But have you ever wondered how the pandemic was first identified and how people living in different parts of the world are better aware of its hazards than say of the Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS) of 2002? The speed at which information was shared about the disease was made possible especially by advances in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics. After the first COVID-19 cases were first reported in China, the tracking, as well as mapping the spread of the disease, were all made possible due to the extensive use of AI, data science and other advanced digital tools.
This has resulted in the rollout of effective initiatives by many technology companies, including start-ups, in different parts of the world. We will now discuss how these actions were made possible in a short span of time.
BlueDot is a Canada-based start-up that tracks strains of any type of contagious viruses and their impact on different locations. Thanks to the AI tools at its disposal, BlueDot managed to track the disease’s spread much earlier than most other agencies. The firm analysed data generated by health organisations, commercial flights, weather satellites, livestock farmers and news sources. The company’s natural language processing and machine learning algorithms enabled it to accurately assess the start of the pandemic and its subsequent spread.
Boston’s Children Hospital has developed a new AI system that allows users to track the rapidity of the spread of contagious diseases. Named as HealthMap, the system helps in obtaining relevant data from blogs, social media platforms and Google searches. The information thus obtained is immensely useful in detecting and monitoring the outbreak of infectious diseases and real-time surveillance of public health threats like COVID-19.
Technologists at Antwork, a group company of Japan headquartered commercial drone firm, Terra Drone, have developed several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)s for the transport of medical samples and quarantine materials. These UAVs or delivery drones helped to make deliveries from the main medical facility in the country to the disease control centre in Xinchang County in China’s Zhejiang province. The company’s drones are also being used in maintaining a vigil on public spaces to prevent breaching of the quarantine regulations apart from thermal imaging.
Chinese technology giant Alibaba Group’s offshoot, the Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook or Alibaba DAMO Academy has offered medical personnel a cloud-based advanced AI application in the global battle against COVID-19. These systems help in recognising the presence of coronavirus with an accuracy of up to 96% through computer tomographic (CT) scans, the company has claimed. They can detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus in a person’s body within 20-30 seconds as opposed to 10-15 minutes that the most advanced available tests take. The technology will help medical professionals save a lot of their time and resources at this very critical juncture.
South Korean molecular biotech firm Seegene Inc. utilised AI to quickly develop a testing kit for the detection of COVID-19 cases. Thanks to the use of an AI-based big data system, the firm created the kits within a record time of two weeks. In the normal course, the task would have taken up to three months! The exemplary work done by Seegene has allowed South Korea to avoid the shortage of test kits as compared to several other countries. By early March, the country had successfully tested over 200,000 people using such kits.
China has deployed contactless temperature detection software at crowded public places like community centres and metro rail stations as well as a special facial recognition technology that can reportedly recognise faces even if they are wearing masks in some of its biggest cities. The technologies have been developed by SenseTime, a leading AI firm based in Hong Kong. Besides, other Chinese companies such as Tencent have also developed a tracking app to monitor citizens’ daily body temperature through QR codes on mobile phones. This particular tool is used to identify the susceptibility of any person to COVID-19 infection based on the daily update fed in by the user. Chinese citizens can also use popular apps like Alipay, WeChat, etc., which alert them through a red, yellow and green code on whether they can carry on with their normal routine or if they need to quarantine.
Some of the most famous tech companies like DiDi, Huawei as well as Tencent are using their supercomputers and cloud computing resources to fast-track work on the coronavirus vaccine. The researchers attached to these companies have also said that these tools work much faster as compared to a conventional computer processing system. They also help the researchers to track the patient’s rate of recovery in a much more efficient manner.
The entire world is currently overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Individuals and agencies in the frontline of the battle are working long hours and often under the most hazardous conditions to contain the pandemic as well as develop a vaccine. In this race against time, technologies in the form of AI and data science are making a significant contribution to this global effort.
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