In late December last year, Dr. Li Wenliang began warning officials about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, but was silenced by the police before tragically succumbing to the disease two months later. Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, a computer server halfway across the world started issuing worrying alerts of a potential new outbreak. The server runs software by BlueDot, a company based in San Francisco that uses AI to monitor infectious disease outbreaks for signs of early trouble.

Not enough people listened to either human expertise or AI. Then cases skyrocketed in Wuhan and spread across the world, and people had to take note.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it is remarkable that BlueDot and other machine learning-based services are beginning to catch early signs of infectious disease outbreaks—almost within the same time frame as health experts, if just for COVID-19. We often hear about AI as the next second coming of healthcare, where it can catch cases early, accelerate drug development, and personalize treatment. Yet COVID-19 is the first global pandemic to ever hold healthcare AI’s feet to the flame in a global, serious, and urgent real-world test case. In a head-to-head race, can AI actually accelerate new anti-virals or vaccines for COVID-19, something the world has never previously seen? Or will traditional biotech measures excel, in turn unveiling that AI’s hype massively outstrips reality?

MIT Technology Review recently reported an excellent piece that comprehensively looks at how AI—at its current ability level—can help us predict, diagnose, and treat novel viral threats. I’m on board with the general idea: AI’s potential is enormous.

Yet for now, don’t look to AI to help tackle COVID-19; it’s simply not ready.
That said, it is enormously helpful to see how major machine learning companies are utilizing or repositioning their technologies for tackling the crisis. People often critique AI tested in “toy cases,” or standardized, limited datasets that may have limited significance in the real world. With companies working on COVID-19, that’s no longer the case…

Image Credit: Envato/ Amanda Scott

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