Supercomputers vs Superviruses: Why Tech is Our Best Hope in the Coronavirus Pandemic

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It is hard not to feel helpless in the midst of an international disease pandemic. Individually, better hygiene and social distancing seem to be the only tools any one person has at their disposal. Collectively, however, mankind is unleashing its smartest solutions to combat the coronavirus.

For the first time, artificial intelligence and machine learning are major allies in the battle against disease outbreak. So far, technology has been used to detect the disease’s arrival, identify carriers, project infection rates, and develop potential vaccines.

The virus, however, has eluded containment efforts. Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, has spread to more than 100 countries with containment proving difficult in today’s globalized world. Nonetheless, the great strides being made with technology on our side, from advanced deterrent techniques to genetic sequencing, show why tech is our best hope during disease outbreak.

How we got here

Technology knew there was a problem even before we did. A company called BlueDot uses an AI-driven algorithm which scours foreign-language news reports, animal and plant disease networks, and official proclamations to give its clients advance warning of danger zones.

The algorithm detected activity in Wuhan in late December, before Chinese authorities even acknowledged the virus.

Early detection could not prevent contagion as the virus moved faster than any one government. As the illness went global, smart platforms worked to track global air travel, identify potential carriers, and project infection rates.

This pandemic is proving to be a crucial real-life test case for a host of new technologies – and it is clear that such smart systems need smart data.

The need for clean data

Outbreaks past and present have been hindered by a lack of clean data to feed into prediction models, leading to inaccurate results and worse outcomes. In 2008, researchers from Google claimed that they could “nowcast” the flu based on people’s searches. Developers believed Google searches from people sick with the flu would provide almost instant signals of overall prevalence.

Google Flu Trends failed, however, missing at the peak of the 2013 flu season by 140 percent. This is because Google’s algorithm was vulnerable to overfitting seasonal terms unrelated to the flu and did not take into account changes in search behavior over time.

Similarly, inadequate testing and overwhelmed medical facilities have been blamed by experts for China’s under-reporting of coronavirus cases. The incorrect number of real cases led to unreliable data and flawed predictions. In both examples, supercomputers were only as precise as the data they were given.

Finding the cure, faster

There is no question that the coronavirus outbreak constitutes a defining moment. However, it will pass, and mankind will then better understand the vital role of artificial intelligence and machine learning for future outbreaks. In fact, technology is likely to get us to that point sooner.

About 35 companies and academic institutions are racing to create a vaccine, with at least four already testing in animals. The first of these will enter human trials in April.

This speediness is thanks to the groundwork of early Chinese efforts to sequence the genetic material of the virus that causes Covid-19. China shared that sequence in early January to allow research groups around the world to grow the live virus and study how it invades human cells. Technology, therefore, has been helping us to both fight the virus and find a cure.

Mankind’s most important tool

Without a doubt, supercomputers give us our best chance yet at identifying outbreaks early and fighting them in the smartest way possible.

The most important thing is to acknowledge what has not worked. Governments and public health agencies must take responsibility and act quickly when outbreaks do occur. We live in a global community and there must be no obfuscation when it comes to the health of this interconnected society.

It does not matter where viruses originate or the optics it might bring to any one government. What matters is protecting humanity. AI gives us an incredible chance to protect life and we must arm it with the information it needs to do so. This outbreak only confirms the position of technology as mankind’s most important tool in protecting global health. We are far better off in this fight with technology on our side.

About the Author

Golnar Pooya is an advisor at 7 Gate Ventures. and has worked for the past two decades helping F500 enterprises capitalize on opportunities in new disruptive technologies and expand their ecosystems.

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  1. Reasonable ML Engineer says

    This article is incredibly self-regarding. Proper funding of epidemiology, stockpiling of critical components, and a rational government response all rank well ahead of machine learning (not “AI”, which doesn’t exist) as ways to deal with pandemics.