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AI Guided Us Through This Pandemic, What Role Will We Allow It to Play in the Next?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has had to adapt to our “new normal.” From social distancing to mask mandates, we have all done our part to help stop the spread of this deadly disease. Organizations across the globe had to quickly adapt and implement new health and safety requirements to stop the viral spread. While the general public has been largely unaware, artificial intelligence has been crucial in guiding us through the pandemic. AI and machine learning have helped us identify, monitor, and treat COVID-19, along with assisting in ensuring that health and safety measures are being adhered to help stop the spread of the virus. 

These real-world implementations of AI have given us a sense of its power. We must take these learnings from this past year into account, not just as we reflect on the power of AI to aid us in other global issues, but also as we actively plan ahead to anticipate the next pandemic, which world leaders and health experts tell us is a matter of when, not if. 

AI and COVID-19

We are seeing proposed legislation to outright ban AI technologies or limit the use of data. These proposals rely heavily on unfounded claims that if we pursue AI too eagerly, it will overpower us. However, the use of AI in battling the pandemic paints a very different picture, one that illuminates the power of humans working in tandem with artificial intelligence for the greater good.  

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BlueDot, an outbreak risk software, was among the first to identify the COVID-19 virus and predict its severity by using machine learning to analyze data from hundreds of thousands of sources. BlueDot and others have continued to use AI to make vital forecasts about the spread of the virus – allowing resources to be apportioned accordingly to handle multiple localized outbreaks. 

AI has similarly been used to prevent virus contraction with contact tracing and offer preliminary diagnoses through apps like AI4COVID-19, which analyzes audio recording samples of coughs. AI chatbots have also been utilized throughout the pandemic to help reduce crowding at hospitals by advising individuals on whether their symptoms indicate a need to go to a medical facility or not.

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In our company, we utilized AI to develop and perfect additional features for the facial recognition software to be able to accurately monitor for proper mask wearing and encourage safe pandemic protection practices. As the Delta variant and other variants continue to grow and spread, and parts of the US, like Los Angeles County, bring back their mask mandates, mask detection technology will continue to remain vital. 

Even in finding treatments for the virus, artificial intelligence and machine learning have proven to be instrumental. In a case study described by Gurjit S Randhawa from the University of Western Ontario, BenevolentAI used machine learning to hasten its drug discovery program and discovered baricitinib as a potential drug against COVID-19. 

Planning for the Next Pandemic Scenario 

We don’t know if the next pandemic we’ll face will be tomorrow or 100 years from now. What we do know is that this limitus test of using AI to fight bio-crises was successful, and next time, we should look to quickly deploy AI technologies far and wide to better protect ourselves before vaccines are available and help discover treatments more rapidly. 

Mask detection technologies and AI-enabled healthcare apps can help lift the burden on healthcare workers, implement contact tracing procedures, and ensure our hospitals have the tools to help those who need it most. 

In order to stop the next viral threat before it becomes a global pandemic, we, as a society, must set rules and guidelines by which we allow ourselves to fully leverage data while still protecting those who own it. For implementation of facial recognition, we need to set clear and concise guidelines on ethical and secure use cases so in future pandemics, it can be leveraged to secure hospitals and ensure proper care to those who need it. When properly implemented, AI-driven tech can reduce the need for lengthy check-ins, replace physical vaccination cards, and ensure that wherever you are, the proper health and safety precautions are being taken based on your vaccination status. 

We must tackle these big questions head on and build regulatory frameworks around these technologies now, so when the next pandemic strikes, the world will be ready.

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