AI could be crucial in the war against future global pandemics

It’s long been understood that AI has an important role to play in our lives, particularly in the healthcare sector. However, although there has been much talk of AI’s transformative potential, the uptake of AI in the real world has been slow, mainly due to data privacy concerns, and the standardization of healthcare regulations.

The rampant spread of COVID-19 may change that. In fact, the pandemic we are facing could not only change the way we provide healthcare, but also change the way we work and entertain ourselves.

Francisco España, the VP of Corporate Strategy and Business Development at DefinedCrowd, believes we will see a radical change in the attitude of governments, policymakers, businesses and the public towards AI. And according to España, the change will be most evident in the healthcare industry.

“Interestingly, healthcare is one of the industries that heavily invest in AI,” says España. “However, there is still a long way to go before proofs-of-concept and pilots are applied to mass production.”

Red tape and PII

The reasons for this, España believes, is because of the policy-driven nature of healthcare enterprises, and fears around relinquishing control of personal identifiable information. “These two factors account heavily for the delay in the implementation of AI in healthcare; they are, by far, the two biggest hurdles we face at the moment,” he says. “Healthcare providers cannot enable smarter experiences if they are bound by outdated, decade-old policies”.

However, just as COVID-19 is forever changing the way people work, so too will it change the way we receive healthcare.

España relates the healthcare industry’s reluctance to adopt widespread AI to the belief of many companies that remote working is not conducive to productivity.

“For years, companies have been hesitant to adopt remote working practices, insisting that policies be created and implemented beforehand. But in a matter of a week, thousands of businesses around the world were forced to comply with government requirements to put into place the facilities that allow their employees to work from home. Guess what? It worked. And, contrary to what many companies believed, it’s actually proving to be an extremely successful model for most.”

COVID-19 has pushed companies into experimenting with technology and remote working, and into accepting that it can be done, and easily so. The same sort of realization is dawning on the healthcare industry. According to España, the world is going to see significantly more investment in AI, as healthcare leaders, government officials and policymakers better understand the power of technology to help in a crisis situation, at scale when time is of the essence.

Data is key

In healthcare, data is key. By combining data about people, their history, cities, the macro-environment, and even factors such as the weather, an AI model can help immensely with crisis management, helping to save lives. This is why startup companies are developing mobile apps to gather information on the spread of COVID-19. This data will be given to scientists to “better plan their responses”.

Indeed, there is no doubting the importance of data in the field of healthcare. España mentions how smart cities might have assisted governments in fighting COVID-19. “Currently, we have zero visibility. We have no way to manage the situation because we know nothing about our cities or the people who live in them. Governments are realizing that a smart city, with smart services and infrastructure, could help them measure and manage a pandemic like the one we are in.”

The power of prevention

The power of AI in healthcare lies in anticipation and prevention. And some of the newest healthcare players are tech companies. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung all know the value of wearables to the management of chronic diseases. These devices are no more than a collection of healthcare sensors that gather information on everything and anything from your gender and activity level, to your heart rate and the levels of oxygen in your blood.

“Combined with other data, this is the sort of information required to anticipate how much at risk a population is,” says España. “With the right data, AI models can help to anticipate if you are more likely to become seriously ill with something like COVID-19, by understanding your medical condition, your geographic position, and your patterns of behavior. Without these indicators, governments can’t take preventative measures to avoid a situation like the one we are currently experiencing.”  

The big tech companies see the business opportunity in this and are competing to integrate their products into healthcare management and home-based care. España predicts that tech companies will begin hiring doctors at scale, as technology begins to monitor the health of the broad population. And this type of monitoring is not far off: already, smart watches have fall-detection features which alert pre-defined contacts if the person wearing the watch has fallen. “This type of technology provides huge benefit to the individual and those around them and can actually save many lives,” says España.

Of course, it goes without saying that this technology needs to be well-balanced with data privacy, as well as security and governance around AI practices.

A 360 world

The potential of AI in our world is vast. España sees AI technology connecting hospitals to a range of other service providers, from personal trainers and dieticians to restaurants and supermarkets.

“By connecting wearables to a variety of entities, like transportation systems and gyms, doctors can access a digital version of you: how much you exercise, how much sleep you get, and how often you use public transport. From this vital information, doctors can pursue the best course of action for you,” says España.

España also foresees a world in which AI-models can make recommendations based on health predictions. Just like Spotify recommends playlists, so will AI recommend exercise routines and meals based on your health needs.

Data can also be shared with personal trainers, dieticians and grocery stores, extending the reach of AI into every facet of your life. For example, if you’ve been for a hip replacement, your personal trainer can instantly access this information and design a recovery plan accordingly.

España is certain of one thing: “The impact of COVID-19 will make people think in very different ways about how they can use technology to their advantage; augmenting their capabilities to be smarter, faster and more efficient.” 

Current AI technologies

Even in the relatively short space of time since COVID-19 was first detected, AI is making huge inroads. Already, scientists are using deep learning algorithms to accurately detect COVID-19 from CT chest scans, while mobile digital X-ray systems installed in public places are helping with early diagnoses. Google’s Verily is developing a temperature patch that alerts its users to high body temperatures, a key symptom of COVID-19.

However, according to España, the AI industry still faces a challenge. “There are a few things we will need to overcome. Despite its social responsibility, the fact of the matter is, healthcare is a business. If AI doesn’t show a return on investment, hospitals may not adopt certain technologies,” says España.

Challenges facing AI

Another concern is the public’s perception of AI. Many people may feel threatened or concerned that AI may replace doctors or nurses. “This will never be the case,” says España. “AI’s function is to augment the capabilities of healthcare providers, by more efficiently and accurately performing the administrative side of their jobs. Analyzing data and predicting patterns, avoiding human errors, and suggesting tests and treatments will ultimately free up doctors and nurses to do what they do best: giving care to patients.”

Finally, says España, people’s perception of AI has been influenced by popular culture, which often creates narratives around AI taking over the world. It’s not going to happen.

“AI by itself, is not smart at all,” says España. “The real challenge of AI is that it’s too literal. It’s nothing but ones and zeros. Humans effectively determine what AI becomes, as they define the parameters of an AI’s success through the data they train the different models with. At the end of the day, human intelligence is combined with machine learning to empower what we see as intelligent experiences. In healthcare, AI is not going to make critical decisions about patients itself; instead, it will augment the capabilities of doctors and nurses and make various recommendations. But ultimately, what happens in healthcare is always a human decision.”

We have only uncovered the tip of AI’s potential. It’s true power and benefit to humanity have yet to be realized. However, a global crisis like COVID-19 is highlighting how unprepared we are, and how much better prepared we can be. COVID-19 may have irrevocably changed our world, but we could look back and realize it was for the better.