From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, artificial intelligence (AI) has been used to support the unprecedented fight against the resulting crisis, albeit with some reservations due to operational and ethical issues. The scientific community, along with policy-makers and the media industry worldwide, has emphasized AI’s potential utilization to optimize the fight against the virus on multiple fronts, including healthcare, economy, trade, global travel, technology, safety and preventative measures against future outbreaks.
Thus far, AI has helped authorities in many countries curb the Covid-19 pandemic’s spread in several significant ways. For instance, AI has been used to notify health authorities about excess occupancy of public spaces and potential severe health risks posed by virus clusters. In the infrastructure sector, innovative technologies have been used to help monitor the flow of people and vehicles along roads through radars, thus helping to ensure compliancy with emergency measures. In the case of businesses, AI has offered commercial benefits to firms and organizations in the private sector that are in charge of maintaining operational efficiency under difficult economic circumstances.
However, the burgeoning use of AI in the global fight against Covid-19 has raised several key questions, including the lack of consistent and codified regulation and the absence of global protocols that would ensure that different facets of AI can be employed in ways that do not impinge on privacy and data usage concerns. A further issue is the absence of the political will to raise standards through rigorous testing and poor acknowledgment of errors.
If utilized rightfully, AI can be beneficial and assist nations in many fields. This insight tackles the global AI-assisted fight against the pandemic, followed by a debate over privacy concerns, and concluding with recommendations and a path forward in the aftermath of the pandemic. The insight will focus on the UAE’s case, which has established itself as a regional leader in the utilization of AI to mitigate and suppress Covid-19 while also continuously striking a balance between safe innovation and individual privacy.
AI and the global fight against Covid-19
Since the onset of the pandemic, AI has been used by both the public and the private sector around the world as one of the most effective tools for tackling Covid-19. In the healthcare sector in particular, AI has been widely used due to the urgency of the challenges posed by the virus, especially in diagnostics and the development of drugs and vaccines.
Due to the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak, most countries have introduced physical distancing measures and asked their citizens to remain in their homes as much as possible. Nevertheless, by employing AI tools, government organizations, businesses and various institutions have been able, via remote connectivity, to maintain economic activity and workforce productivity while also providing adequate levels of healthcare, education and other essential services.
The AI industry has proved that robots can perform tasks in situations deemed unsafe for humans. To protect people from exposure to Covid-19 virus, robots have been programmed to roam the streets and appeal to residents to maintain social distancing and follow safety precautions in several cities around the globe.
The three main areas where AI is being utilized effectively to fight the pandemic are: (i) managing healthcare resources; (ii) service management and research; and (iii) development of drugs and vaccines. In some cases, robots have been used to remotely identify people with symptoms of the disease. AI tools have also been utilized to provide a safer environment for doctors and nurses when treating patients.
Source: [PwC, 2016]
With the help of AI, it has been possible to accurately specify and manage key organizational tasks and better define objectives. The Covid-19 pandemic proved that machine learning - subset of AI that offers the improvement of systems and skills to self-learn without being programmed - can be rapidly adopted by organizations to achieve excellence in areas such as communication, as well as providing essential services, customer care and a better understanding of fundamental issues to help combat the virus through effective treatment and containment.
For example, BlueDot, an AI-oriented organization that uses machine learning and other AI applications to monitor outbreaks of infectious diseases, alerted other institutions about a surprising spike in pneumonia cases in Wuhan, before the World Health Organization (WHO) assessed the outbreak and subsequently defined it as a pandemic. This showed how AI could assist in analyzing data on the different phases of the pandemic, thus showing the technology’s potential for processing information on emerging global public health threats.
Time is essential during a pandemic as the virus can spread quickly. AI applications could potentially save thousands of lives by sequencing the genome of the Covid-19 virus, which comprises of 30,000 genetic bases, thereby providing a vital assessing and tracking function for developing incidences of the disease. As changes in these genetic materials occur every two weeks on average when a virus spreads and reproduces, real time analyses of these genetic changes can illuminate how fast the virus spreads. As a result, such usage of AI at different stages of a pandemic offers a crucial mechanism for virus control and mitigation.
In recent months, AI’s topicality in think-tank forums have generated many interesting insights from experts seeking to contribute to decision making and the future implementation of AI in different fields. The Abu Dhabi-based TRENDS Research & Advisory hosted an e-discussion on May 6, 2020, titled “Using Artificial Intelligence to Tackle Epidemics,” where experts discussed ways AI can be used against Covid-19 across areas, including treatment, prevention, and social policy.
One of the event’s expert speakers, Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi, the Vice President of Research and Development at Thomson Reuters, explained how machine learning can accelerate and assist in drugs and vaccine development. For instance, machine learning can examine other viruses that have similar elements to Covid-19. On the prevention front, robotics is being used to detect people’s temperatures to help prevent the disease’s spread.
Konrad Karcz, Professor of Medicine and Head of Minimally Invasive Surgery at the Ludwig Maximilian University Clinic in Germany, explained how AI and machine learning could help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. He said that the information gathered from AI screening could identify illnesses in public places such as airports and buildings. He explained how chatbots could possibly measure body temperatures.
In terms of social policy, Dr. Al-Kofahi further outlined how machine learning is being used to study the pandemic to help health workers and policy makers make decisions based a few key factors, including the number of cases and death rates. Machine learning has proven to be a significant tool in supporting the medical sector, remote communications and other sectors. Healthcare organizations also use machine learning chatbots to test potential Covid-19 patients, measure temperatures and provide other treatment remotely. For instance, in France, Clevy.io has launched a chatbot that provides people with clear and accessible information or updates issued by the government regarding Covid-19.
AI-generated machine learning also allows researchers to study and examine large amounts of information and data to recognize the patterns of the virus’ spread, which enables earlier diagnoses and more effective treatment. It speeds the process of developing drugs to cure Covid-19 cases by identifying the connections between diseases, treatments and genes. Data science and AI systems are also beneficial in advancing healthcare management by identifying and diagnosing patients, as well as automatically updating patient information. The use of AI in bioinformatics has also reduced the necessary experimentation time for developing prototype vaccines and drugs by several months.
Nations’ efforts against Covid-19
While the use of AI in health was evident worldwide even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the effectiveness of the countries’ response strategies to the current situation can be linked to their utilization of AI-assisted technology and methods. To that extent, countries such as China, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have pioneered the use of AI in a plethora of strategic fields that supplement its use in the medical field.
East Asia: China and South Korea
China, the first country with recorded cases of the virus, initially used AI for research to develop a treatment or vaccine, to limit the movement of people to avoid transmission, and to enable health specialists to make faster diagnoses. Moreover, Beijing Infervision Technology Co., Ltd, a high-tech Chinese enterprise that has developed software to detect lung cancer in patients by using CT scans, is currently applying the software to detect pneumonia and viruses such as Covid-19. At least 34 hospitals in China have used this modified technology to assist in the screening of over 32,000 cases across the country. While experts believe that detecting pneumonia solely based on a scan does not confirm that someone has contracted the virus, CT scan software provides an effective aid to help healthcare workers identify, diagnose and treat patients more efficiently by identifying the symptoms of Covid-19.
China’s huge and diverse population could generate and provide vast amounts of data while also enabling talented researchers and companies to achieve their goal to make the country the first AI global superpower by 2030. Although China’s implementation of AI during the Covid-19 outbreak was aggressive, it helped slow down the virus’s spread to the extent that the potential of the new technologies was clearly indicated.
South Korea, one of the first countries to be affected by Covid-19, has effectively used AI in combatting the virus. The country invested resources, which helped in containing the spread of the virus without shutting down economic activities. By using AI for research aimed at improving our understanding of the virus’s genetic makeup, Seegene, a South Korean biotech company, managed to reduce the time required to develop Covid-19 testing kits to only three weeks prior to their mass distribution throughout the country. By conducting rapid, large-scale testing, amounting to over 230,000 tests were completed, a significant number of positive cases were diagnosed at the beginning of the outbreak, thereby helping South Korea to promptly contain the virus. South Korea is striving for inclusion in the top 4 global nations employing AI by 2022, investing billions of dollars in AI training and research. As part of this drive, the country is planning to transform Daegu into a smart city by 2021.
The United Arab Emirates
Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE had effectively utilized AI in optimizing its governance structure and provision of public services. In 2017, the UAE government appointed Omar Al-Olama as Minister of AI, the first minister to be appointed to such a position. The UAE’s utilization of AI technologies against the Covid-19 pandemic has been focused on the collection of accurate information to ensure that preventative and safety measures are efficient and successful. While gathering reliable information can be time-consuming, AI can be a useful tool to help speed up this process, hence allowing the implementation of the safety measures as quickly and effectively as possible.
Some examples of the UAE’s use of AI to fight Covid-19 include the launching of official Covid-19 testing and tracing app called “Alhosn” by the Ministry of Health and Prevention, which gives fast access to test results and contract tracing for accurate control of the virus, as an AI-based tool that has proved to be a secure medium for patients’ private information.
On April 2020, the Abu Dhabi Department of Health, in collaboration with “Injazat”, announced the launch of a new AI-driven app called “Remote Healthcare” to ensure that citizens and residents in the UAE have access to all the necessary information and services without physical contact. The app also remotely provides essential medical support to the elderly and people with chronic diseases, through services such as booking appointments, medical consultations, and prescriptions. This application helps connect Covid-19 patients, in self-isolation, with all vital information provided to doctors and healthcare professionals to enable them to monitor patients until they are fully recovered.
Abu Dhabi has also used programmed robots to spray disinfected areas as part of its sterilization program. In Dubai, the ambulance service has rolled out a self-sanitization device that allows paramedics and their families to sterilize clothing through a “sanitization corridor,” which is an AI-driven tool used to disinfect clothes of paramedics and their families.
In addition, AI has helped the education sector adapt to the changed circumstances of the pandemic, benefiting both instructors and students. Given the importance of fully utilizing AI’s benefits, some educational institutes across the UAE are researching and developing tools that could contribute to the fight against Covid-19. Scientists and researchers at Khalifa University (KU) are currently developing a prototype ventilator by using AI-based tools that incorporate 3D print medical equipment, x-ray machines and personal protective equipment. KU is also assisting the construction of a dedicated ventilator production plant.
The Covid-19 outbreak has enhanced the use of AI around the world, improving and speeding national decision-making. As there were not enough information about the outbreak when it started, turning to AI and advanced technology was the most effective solution to contain the spread of the virus as quickly and as efficiently as possible. China, Korea and the UAE did not hesitate to implement new strategies with the help of AI and machine learning, which partially explains why these countries have contained the spread of the virus relatively successfully.
Addressing privacy concerns
Despite the benefits of innovative new technologies, the debate over the issues that connect AI, “big data” and privacy remains an issue. As the world is currently relying heavily on AI technologies to find solutions to eliminate the spread of the virus, including tracking citizens’ movements and gathering relevant data through phone applications, CCTV cameras and other means, there is some concern about the ethical consequences of such “mass surveillance”.
The vast volume of personal data collected through AI applications has raised deep concerns about their privacy, safety and security. Some people might conceive this as an invasion of privacy, while others may justify this until the pandemic is over. The debate between privacy and AI has been widely acknowledged by the US and Europe, as privacy is valued as a form of freedom. In an alternative approach, countries such as China understand privacy through a different lens, as a result of its distinct cultural attitudes, thus enabling the co-existence of the two approaches without an active clash.
The collection, analysis and use of such data may lead to negative externalities by violating human rights without an appropriate public justification. To that extent, the World Economic Forum (WEF) recommends that to avoid such violation and respect people’s privacy and freedom, organizations must minimize data collection to what is relevant and required for preventative measures. The WEF also advises governments to build public trust by sharing relevant details on, for instance, the extent and distribution of the virus’s spread and information on measures being implemented by governments.
The field of AI is advancing rapidly as the concept of privacy has become increasingly complex. Therefore, it is important for governments to reassure their people that they are taking proactive measures to manage their private information with care. Such measures could be, but not limited to, the transparency of AI applications, limitations on data collection to a defined design and purpose, measures to assure people that their data is not being abused by others, and assurances that such data will be deleted when it is no longer required for the purposes initially specified. For instance, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) authorized the use of personal data collection and analysis of coronavirus-positive patients on the condition that was not to be used once the pandemic was declared over. This approach allows the urgent, optimized use of data for AI applications in treating Covid-19 while ensuring that loopholes could not be exploited or data mismanaged or shared with third parties.
Lessons and recommendations
One of the questions surrounding the sudden and severe outbreak of Covid-19 is whether the world will be ready for further such virus infections. Through rigorous data analysis supported by AI, professionals of different fields have been assisted in gaining a better understanding of the nature of the virus and defining measures to combat pandemics more efficiently.2
AI can expand on the lessons learned from Covid-19 to inform governments about future pandemics. Some of the lessons the world has learned from the approaches that have been implemented to fight Covid-19 include:
Given the lessons that the AI industry has learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resulting crisis thus far, there are several key recommendations for the future that can be put forward to optimize global strategies and act as preventative policies.
With regard to China, South Korea and the UAE, their laudable efforts have accelerated the adoption of AI solutions over the past few months. Several key measures can be taken to strengthen the utilization of AI in the country’s overall strategic drive and serve as an effective example of good practices for other countries:
The use of AI in the global fight against Covid-19 has accelerated since the early months of 2020. The rapidly expanding use of AI in the race for a vaccine and testing and tracing measures reflects the technological revolution now underway around the world. However, there are issues of concern that need to be addressed, the most important of which is the need for globally recognized regulation on issues such as privacy.
In developed countries, the application of AI has been an important feature of many aspects of government emergency measures, indicating a shift toward a more flexible understanding of the role of governance in times of crisis. As the UAE, China, South Korea, and other countries around the world, are starting to open their doors and ease lockdown restrictions, AI will play an increasingly significant role in the ongoing fight against Covid-19. So long as the ethical dimensions of AI use are addressed, we can be certain that the widespread use of AI data and technology will become crucial features of global responses to future healthcare emergencies.
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