It was Benjamin Franklin who said: “out of adversity comes opportunity.” If anything proves this statement to be valid it is the opportunity, presented by the current pandemic, to harness the incredible power and speed of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data Analytics (BDA) to boost the fight against COVID-19. The catastrophic arrival in 2020/1 of this deadly pandemic has presented an ideal occasion for governments worldwide to employ AI and BDA on a worldwide basis to fight this awful disease.

AI is a weapon being employed – to various levels – by countries across the globe to battle Covid-19. In some cases, governments are working in alliance with others in a race against time to defeat an enemy that is destroying both lives and economies. The most recent local example, albeit a small one, is the decision by the Irish government and one of the major mobile phone companies to harvest the aggregated movement data from mobile phones of customers in order to track their compliance with Covid-19 public health and movement restrictions.

AI and BDA can be used to give a detailed map of a population’s movements within towns and cities, and between population centres. By using this technology, the Irish authorities were able to direct the police service to manage areas of non-compliance. Population monitoring is a page right out of the novel 1984. The same system had previously been introduced by the Belgian authorities in March 2020. Working with mobile phone operators’, data traffic was mapped. The mapping of people’s movements reassured the government that Belgians were spending about 80 per cent of their time within their restricted areas. As a result, the Belgian authorities were able to take the informed decision not to implement more restrictive lockdown laws.

Swine Flu Precedent

The use of AI and BDA in the fight against epidemics is not something new. In 2009, the data-gathering power of Google was leveraged to fight the H1N1 Swine flu. At that time, Google had the ability to gather and analyse three billion search terms every day. Then someone had the brilliant idea of harnessing this intelligence in order to identify localities where flu symptoms were appearing. The data allowed for that mapping to be done and as close to real-time as was possible[DK1] . To do this, Google and government medical advisers identified 45 key data search terms. Any clustered appearances of these terms, or several of them, being searched within a particular area set off an alarm that the virus might be developing within that locality. Suddenly, instead of aimlessly chasing reports of the spreading flu, the health authorities were able to identify patterns of outbreaks, or possible outbreaks, at an early stage and to direct with precision the means to suppress it. (see the KantanMT blog for further details)

Big-Tech Gets Moving

In many countries across the globe, including Ireland, an app has been deployed which aims to copy a blueprint used in cancer research of creating a global network of smartphones to power a virtual supercomputer.  The DreamLab app, developed by the Vodafone Foundation, is capable of processing billions of calculations using an army of idle mobile phones left charging overnight. The Imperial College, London is leading the project. The app was in invented in 2017 to be used in the fight against cancer. It is hoped that the powerful network – drawing computational power off inactive phones – can be exploited to speed the identification of novel anti-viral components in existing medicines and aid the search for anti-viral molecules in common foods. The Foundation said that while a desktop computer could take up to a decade to parse through this data, a network of 100,000 smartphones running the app overnight could do it in a couple of months. The app is available for download on both iOS and Android phones.

Meanwhile, a dozen Big-Tech companies have combined to create the Emergent Alliance – a non-profit partnership specialising in AI and BDA technology. The mission statement of the alliance is:

“… to contribute expertise, data, and resources to inform decision making on regional and global economic challenges to aid societal recovery post Covid-19”.

Last April, data scientists and AI experts at IBM and Rolls-Royce combined to create a project team with the objective of mapping a more granular and real time picture of Covid-19 cases, allowing the relevant medical organisations develop a more focused and robust response to local outbreaks. To this end, IBM has supplied its AI platform and a team of data scientists to help develop a network to connect the remotely positioned teams. The multi-faceted team has agreed to make the code behind AI models and insights freely available to the public at and on the code hosting platform GitHub. (Source: Financial Times, London)

The Harnessing of Technologies

Clearly, digital technologies including the Internet of Things (IoT), powerful telecommunication networks, along with Big Data analytics and AI are being harnessed as never before to create powerful weapons in the fight against Covid-19. The establishment of these novel interrelated digital ecosystems, enabling real-time data collection on a huge scale, is allowing scientists and medical professionals to map trends and identify dangers, and to establish effective methodologies to help defeat the virus.

However as with all things data-related, there are genuine concerns about the danger of personal freedoms being eroded. Ella Jakubowska, policy and campaigns officer at European Digital Rights, warns:

We’ve really seen the pandemic used as a tech experiment on people’s rights and freedoms. It’s completely treating our public spaces, faces and bodies as something to be explored and experimented with.”

Post-Covid-19, this may well become one of the publics’ greatest concerns. Until then, most people are willing to grant governments the leeway to pursue unique technological solutions to defeat the killer pandemic. The personal freedoms debate is parked for another day; but it won’t go away.

Aidan Collins, Marketing Manager

 [DK1]Not sure what this is saying.