AI detected the coronavirus long before the world’s population really knew what it was. On December 31st, a Toronto-based startup called BlueDot identified the outbreak in Wuhan, several hours after the first cases were diagnosed by local authorities. The BlueDot team confirmed the info its system had relayed and informed their clients that very day, nearly a week before Chinese and international health organisations made official announcements. Thanks to the speed and scale of AI, BlueDot was able to get a head start over everyone else. If nothing else, this reveals that AI will be key in forestalling the next coronavirus-like outbreak.
BlueDot isn’t the only startup harnessing AI and machine learning to combat the spread of contagious viruses. One Israel-based medtech company, Nanox, has developed a mobile digital X-ray system that uses AI cloud-based software to diagnose infections and help prevent epidemic outbreaks. Dubbed the Nanox System, it incorporates a vast image database, radiologist matching, diagnostic reviews and annotations, and also assistive artificial intelligence systems, which combine all of the above to arrive at an early diagnosis.
Nanox is currently building on this technology to develop a new standing X-ray machine that will supply tomographic images of the lungs. The company plans to market the machine so that it can be installed in public places, such as airports, train stations, seaports, or anywhere else where large groups of people rub shoulders.
Given that the new system, as well as the existing Nanox System, are lower cost mobile imaging devices, it’s unsurprising to hear that Nanox has attracted investment from funds looking to capitalise on AI’s potential for thwarting epidemics. This month, the company announced a $26 million strategic investment from Foxconn. It also signed an agreement this week to supply 1,000 of its Nanox Systems to medical imaging services across Australia, New Zealand and Norway. Coronavirus be warned.
Its CEO and co-founder, Ran Poliakine, believes that such deals are a testament to how the future of epidemic prevention lies with AI-based diagnostic tools. “Nanox has achieved a technological breakthrough by digitizing traditional X-rays, and now we are ready to take a giant leap forward in making it possible to provide one scan per person, per year, for preventative measures,” he tells me. Importantly, the key feature of AI in terms of preventing epidemics is its speed and scale. As Poliakine says, “AI can detect conditions instantly which makes it a great source of power when trying to prevent epidemics. If we talk about 1,000 systems scanning 60 people a day on average, this translates to 60,000 scans that need to be processed daily by the professional teams.” Poliakine also argues that no human force available today that can support this volume with the necessary speed and efficiency. Time and again, this is a point made by other individuals and companies working in this burgeoning sector.
“When it comes to detecting outbreaks, machines can be trained to process vast amounts of data in the same way that a human expert would,” explains Dr Kamran Khan, the founder and CEO of BlueDot, as well as a professor at the University of Toronto. “But a machine can do this around the clock, tirelessly, and with incredible speed, making the process vastly more scalable, timely, and efficient. This complements human intelligence to interpret the data, assess its relevance, and consider how best to apply it with decision-making.”
Basically, AI is set to become a giant firewall against infectious diseases and pandemics. And it won’t only be because of AI-assisted screening and diagnostic techniques. Because as Sergey Young, a longevity expert and founder of the Longevity Vision Fund, tells me, artificial intelligence will also be pivotal in identifying potential vaccines and treatments against the next coronavirus, as well as COVID-19 itself.
“AI has the capacity to quickly search enormous databases for an existing drug that can fight coronavirus or develop a new one in literally months,” he says. “For example, Longevity Vision Fund’s portfolio company Insilico Medicine, which specializes in AI in the area of drug discovery and development, used its AI-based system to identify thousands of new molecules that could serve as potential medications for coronavirus in just four days. The speed and scalability of AI is essential to fast-tracking drug trials and the development of vaccines.”
This kind of treatment-discovery will prove vitally important in the future. And in conjunction with screening, it suggests that artificial intelligence will become one of the primary ingredients in ensuring that another coronavirus won’t have an outsized impact on the global economy. Already, the COVID-19 coronavirus is likely to cut global GDP growth by $1.1 trillion this year, in addition to having already wiped around $5 trillion off the value of global stock markets. Clearly, avoiding such financial destruction in the future would be more than welcome, and artificial intelligence will prove indispensable in this respect. Especially as the scale of potential pandemics increases with an increasingly populated and globalised world.
Sergey Young also explains that AI could play a substantial role in the area of impact management and treatment, at least if we accept their increasing encroachment into society. He notes that, in China, robots are being used in hospitals to alleviate the stresses currently being piled on medical staff, while ambulances in the city of Hangzhou are assisted by navigational AI to help them reach patients faster. Robots have even been dispatched to a public plaza in Guangzhou in order to warn passersby who aren’t wearing face-masks. Even more dystopian, China is also allegedly using drones to ensure residents are staying at home and reducing the risk of the coronavirus spreading further.
Even if we don’t reach that strange point in human history where AI and robots police our behaviour during possible health crises, artificial intelligence will still become massively important in detecting outbreaks before they spread and in identifying possible treatments. Companies such as BlueDot, Nanox, and Insilico Medicine will prove increasingly essential in warding off future coronavirus-style pandemics, and with it they’ll provide one very strong example of AI being a force for good.