How is AI helping throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?

  • Back in February 2020, a World Health Organisation report noted that artificial intelligence and big data were a key part of China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

    It has been almost six months since the UK and Ireland went into lockdown due to Covid-19, and in that time, AI has played a significant role in fighting the virus here as well.

    AI and medtech

    BBC News previously reported that British start-up Exscienta became the first company to put an AI-designed drug molecule to human trials earlier this year.

    Compared with the typical four to five years needed to create the drug with traditional research, it took just one year for algorithms to create it.

    Exscienta’s chief executive Prof Andrew Hopkins said that AI could be used to rapidly develop antibodies and vaccines, scan through existing drugs to see if any could be repurposed, and design a drug to fight both the current and future coronavirus outbreaks, but it is difficult to trust as AI cannot explains its predictions.

    Prof Hopkins warned: "The fastest this could be done is 18 to 24 months away, because of the manufacturing scale-up and all the safety testing that needs to be done.”

    RELATED: Belfast firm Liopa receives funding for lipreading app during COVID crisis

    In India, AI is being used in live CCTV feeds to monitor the Indian population as it is mandatory to wear a protective face mask upon leaving one’s home. Any violations are instantly reported to safety administrators, according to AI Daily.

    Worldwide, AI is being used to develop the first Covid-19 vaccine, and again in India AI simulations have already selected 31 molecules that are undergoing clinical trials as potential cures.

    A team at the University of Oxford has recently developed the Curial AI test, which they say may be capable of identifying coronavirus within a person in the space of an hour.

    Study lead Dr Andrew Soltan said the AI tool was tested on data – such as blood tests and vital signs - from 115,000 visits to A&E at Oxford University Hospitals (OUH) and “in the last week of April and the first week of May, it correctly predicted patients’ Covid status more than 90% of the time.”

    AI and data

    Modelling and tracking data has been one of the main concerns in regards to the virus since its local outbreak.

    The StopCOVID NI app - which was officially launched in Northern Ireland last week - will alert users if they have been in close contact with other users who have tested positive for Covid-19.

    It is a cross-border tracker device operable between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, sending and receiving anonymised data between the two to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

    RELATED: Data shows lockdown deprivation causes domino distress on NI's children

    National contact tracing apps seem to be the new norm across the globe, but similar private apps for hospitality businesses are also starting to come into play.

    For example, the "Safe 2 Serve" app created by UK firm Zing is provided to pubs and restaurants and captures info on everyone that steps through a business' door, so there will be records of who was in the building at the same time as anyone who is later confirmed to be infected. 

    Prior to such apps, geographic information specialists, Esri Ireland developed a mapping platform very early on in lockdown.

    On a national level, it was used to create a free online dashboard, mapping and charting information related to confirmed COVID-19 cases throughout the island of Ireland.

    Esri Ireland's Covid-19 status dashboard for throughout Ireland

    On a global scale, John Hopkins University in Maryland, USA used Esri Ireland’s GIS platform to develop a real-time interactive map which visualises and charts the spread of the coronavirus across the world, since its outbreak in China in December 2019.

    RELATED: Find all episodes of Sync NI's Tech Craic podcast here

    Lisburn-based engineering firm, Integrated Process Control & Engineering (IPCE) introduced AI and thermal imaging tech to help companies across Ireland increase COVID-19 detection.

    Similarly, English tech group inurface media developed a thermal monitoring system that uses a cloud-based system to accumulate people’s temperatures, which can then be accessed by managers both on and off site.

    The group also launched digital equipment that collects data such as the number of occupants in shops, to estimate a waiting time for those queuing outside.  

    Fighting fake news with AI

    With the Covid-19 pandemic, followed an online scam epidemic, with hackers taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities during the crisis.

    In March, Google said its team was "working round the clock to safeguard our users from phishing, conspiracy theories, malware and misinformation".

    When looking for coronavirus or Covid-19 on the search engine, an SOS Alert appears, alongside links to help and information about the virus.

    RELATED: Wayne Denner's 5 CyberScams to watch out for

    Multiple websites and social media platforms including YouTube have been using its homepage to direct users to the World Health Organisation and reputable education and health sources.

    YouTube also said it was working to remove videos suggesting alternative cures as soon as they went live.

    News further came in July of a new AI tool developed by the University of Exeter Business School to detect and prevent the spread of fake news.

    Named LOLA, the system uses AI to classify the emotional context of the language used, and claims a 98% accuracy with detecting harmful behaviour such as cyber-bullying and overt racism.

    RELATED: COVID-19: Why do people create fake news and why do others want to believe it so badly?

    AI: Making life easier in general

    Prof Sabine Hauert at Bristol University told BBC News that AI could simply help with daily tasks during the crisis.

    She mused: "It can also be used to put people out of harm's way, for example using robots to clean hospitals, or telepresence systems for remote meeting, consultations, or simply to connect with loved ones.”

    In a podcast interview with Sync NI, Kainos’ chief technology officer Tom Gray speculated that Covid-19 will accelerate the use of emerging tech such as AI.

    He said: “It will be less a revolution in that things won’t change dramatically. There’s not a new wave of technologies emerging from the Covid-19 experiences, but organisations have accelerated their use of tech like machine learning, cloud platforms, IoT and robotic tech devices.

    “What we’ve seen - certainly when it comes to client appetite for cloud native solutions or to start introducing machine learning – is that they’ve skipped over a lot of the anguishing around, ‘should we do this? Is it too risky?’ I think the acceptance of these emerging technologies has certainly accelerated."

    Tom also noted that as a society and economy, we’re probably very lucky that we have technology at the level of maturity that it is, as it has enabled a number of other sectors to keep going throughout the pandemic.

    We now just need to ensure we’re using such tech in appropriate and mature ways.

    RELATED: Liberty IT’s Gillian Armstrong discusses the ethical impact of tech and the future

    Other sources: Gazette, BBC News

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

    Got a news-related tip you’d like to see covered on Sync NI? Email the editorial team for our consideration.

    Sign up now for a FREE weekly newsletter showcasing the latest news, jobs and events in NI’s tech sector.

Share this story