Artificial intelligence is playing a part in each stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, from predicting the spread of the novel coronavirus to powering robots that can replace humans in hospital wards.
That’s according to Oren Etzioni, CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) and a University of Washington computer science professor. Etzioni and AI2 senior assistant Nicole DeCario have boiled down AI’s role in the current crisis to three immediate applications: Processing large amounts of data to find treatments, reducing spread, and treating ill patients.
“AI is playing numerous roles, all of which are important based on where we are in the pandemic cycle,” the two told GeekWire in an email. “But what if the virus could have been contained?”
Canadian health surveillance startup BlueDot was among the first in the world to accurately identify the spread of COVID-19 and its risk, according to CNBC. In late December, the startup’s AI software discovered a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, and predicted where the virus might go next.
“Imagine the number of lives that would have been saved if the virus spread was mitigated and the global response was triggered sooner,” the two added.
Can AI bring researchers closer to a cure?
One of the best things artificial intelligence can do now is help researchers scour through the data to find potential treatments, Etzioni and DeCario say.
The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), an initiative building on Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) Semantic Scholar project, uses natural language processing to analyze tens of thousands of scientific research papers at an unprecedented pace.
Literature-based discovery has tremendous potential to inform vaccine and treatment development, which is a critical next step in the COVID-19 pandemic. “Semantic Scholar, the team behind the CORD-19 dataset at AI2, was created on the hypothesis that cures for many ills live buried in scientific literature,” Oren and DeCario said. “Literature-based discovery has tremendous potential to inform vaccine and treatment development, which is a critical next step in the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The White House announced the initiative along with a coalition that includes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Microsoft Research, the National Library of Medicine, and Kaggle, the machine learning and data science community owned by Google.
Within four days of the dataset’s release on March 16, it received more than 594,000 views and 183 analyses.
Computer models map out infected cells
Coronaviruses invade cells through “spike proteins,” but they take on different shapes in different coronaviruses. Understanding the shape of the spike protein in SARS-Cov-2 that causes coronavirus is crucial to figuring out how to target the virus and develop therapies.
Dozens of research papers related to spike proteins are in the CORD-19 Explorer to better help people understand existing research efforts. The University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design mapped out 3D atomic-scale models of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that mirror those first discovered in a University of Texas Austin lab.
The team is now working to create new proteins to neutralize the coronavirus, according to David Baker, director of the Institute for Protein Design. These proteins would have to bind to the spike protein to prevent healthy cells from being infected.
Baker suggests that it’s a pretty small chance that artificial intelligence approaches will be used for vaccines.
However, he said, “As far as drugs, I think there’s more of a chance there.”
It has been a few months since COVID-19 first appeared in a seafood-and-live-animal market in Wuhan, China. Now the virus has crossed borders, infecting more than one million people worldwide, and scientists are scrambling to find a vaccine.
“This is one of those times where I wish I had a crystal ball to see the future,” Etzioni said of the likelihood of AI bringing researchers closer to a vaccine. “I imagine the vaccine developers are using all tools available to move as quickly as possible. This is, indeed, a race to save lives.”
More than 40 organizations are developing a COVID-19 vaccine, including three that have made it to human testing.
Apart from vaccines, several scientists and pharmaceutical companies are partnering to develop therapies to combat the virus. Some treatments include using antiviral remdesivir, developed by Gilead Sciences, and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.
AI’s quest to limit human interaction
Limiting human interaction in tandem with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandatory stay-at-home order is one way AI can help fight the pandemic, according to Etzioni and DeCario.
People can order groceries through Alexa without stepping foot inside a store. Robots are replacing clinicians in hospitals, helping disinfect rooms, provide telehealth services, and process and analyze COVID-19 test samples.
Doctors even used a robot to treat the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in Everett, Wash., according to the Guardian. Dr. George Diaz, the section chief of infectious diseases at Providence Regional Medical Center, told the Guardian he operated the robot while sitting outside the patient’s room.
The robot was equipped with a stethoscope to take the patient’s vitals and a camera for doctors to communicate with the patient through a large video screen.
Robots are one of many ways hospitals around the world continue to reduce risk of the virus spreading. AI systems are helping doctors identify COVID-19 cases through CT scans or x-rays at a rapid rate with high accuracy.
Bright.md is one of many startups in the Pacific Northwest using AI-powered virtual healthcare software to help physicians treat patients more quickly and efficiently without having them actually step foot inside an office.
Two Seattle startups, MDmetrix and TransformativeMed, are using their technologies to help hospitals across the nation, including University of Washington Medicine and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The companies’ software helps clinicians better understand how patients ages 20 to 45 respond to certain treatments versus older adults. It also gauges the average time period between person-to-person vs. community spread of the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses Microsoft’s HealthCare Bot Service as a self-screening tool for people wondering whether they need treatment for COVID-19.
AI raises privacy and ethics concerns amid pandemic
Despite AI’s positive role in fighting the pandemic, the privacy and ethical questions raised by it cannot be overlooked, according to Etzioni and DeCario.
Bellevue, Wash., residents are asked to report those in violation of Inslee’s “stay home” order to help clear up 911 lines for emergencies, Geekwire reported last month. Believe police then track suspected violations on the MyBellevue app, which shows “hot spots” of activity.
Bellevue is not the first. The U.S. government is using location data from smartphones to help track the spread of COVID-19. However, privacy advocates, like Jennifer Lee of Washington’s ACLU, are concerned about the long-term implications of Bellevue’s new tool.
Etzioni and DeCario also want people to consider the implications AI has on hospitals. Even though deploying robots to take over hospital wards helps reduce spread, it also displaces staff. Job loss because of automation is already at the forefront of many discussions.