How AI is battling the coronavirus outbreak
By Rebecca Heilweil
When a mysterious illness first pops up, it can be difficult for governments and public health officials to gather information quickly and coordinate a response. But new artificial intelligence technology can automatically mine through news reports and online content from around the world, helping experts recognize anomalies that could lead to a potential epidemic or, worse, a pandemic. In other words, our new AI overlords might actually help us survive the next plague.
These new AI capabilities are on full display with the recent coronavirus outbreak, which was identified early by a Canadian firm called BlueDot, which is one of a number of companies that use data to evaluate public health risks. The company, which says it conducts “automated infectious disease surveillance,” notified its customers about the new form of coronavirus at the end of December, days before both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) sent out official notices, as reported by Wired. Now nearing the end of January, the respiratory virus that’s been linked to the city of Wuhan in China has already claimed the lives of more than 100 people. Cases have also popped up in several other countries, including the United States, and the CDC is warning Americans to avoid non-essential travel to China.
Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and BlueDot’s founder and CEO, explained in an interview how the company’s early-warning system uses artificial intelligence, including natural-language processing and machine learning, to track over 100 infectious diseases by analyzing about 100,000 articles in 65 languages every day. That data helps the company know when to notify its clients about the potential presence and spread of an infectious disease.
Other data, like traveler itinerary information and flight paths, can help give the company additional hints about how a disease will likely spread. For instance, earlier this month, BlueDot researchers predicted other cities in Asia where the coronavirus would show up after it appeared in mainland China.