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AI is set to transform the way humanity battles epidemics Image Credit: Pixabay

In 1956, a number of the brightest minds in science and mathematics gathered to plant the seed for what is known as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Throughout the past 50 years AI has advanced rapidly and has grown to become one of the most crucial technologies of our time.

AI is expected to transform many industries from oil and gas, transportation to even education. Yet one of the most critical areas where it is expected to have the most impact is modern day medicine with a market size estimate to be over $30 billion in the near future.

It is a fact that AI is transforming the way health care is delivered globally from the utilisation of big data and genetic information for providing precision medicine — which is a new line of treatment that is customised specifically to each individual- to including intelligent robotics in surgeries and rehabilitation.

Scientists ‘with the aid of AI’ are developing advanced tools to very precisely find viruses and control its spread. If researchers achieve their vision, it might not be out of the ordinary for the vaccine to be available before the virus becomes wide spread

- Dr. Abdelrahman Al Mahmoud

This impact is only going to grow over the coming years. But more importantly, AI is also set to transform how humanity battles epidemics.

It is no secret that we are facing one of the harshest epidemics of modern times also known as Corona — COVID-19. This virus has caused significant damage to people’s well-being, lives, financial markets and infrastructure.

A simple virus has caused travel restrictions and stopped many public events and gatherings. Yet, this is not the first virus outbreak to caused massive damage. The most current case similar to what we are facing now one in terms of infection rate is swine flu -H1N1- which started in 2009.

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When H1N1 spread across the globe it caused massive panic and its spread went unchecked for the better part of a year. So, what makes this epidemic any different? We have a new weapon against this epidemic, AI.

When talking about the AI just a month before the COVID 19’s outbreak, we find that one of the most prevalent topics is “Will AI take over our jobs” and “How to save our jobs from AI”, rightfully so.

However, with the COVID outbreak, the tables have turned. Everyone is now looking to AI as the technology that will save people’s jobs and put them back into their offices or work environments.

Preventing future pandemics

AI appears in almost every context when talking about Corona, almost as much as hand sanitisers and N95 masks. But AI might just prove to be the single most important development in recent years for fighting this epidemic and preventing future pandemics from spreading unchecked.

To gauge the effect of AI on the current pandemic, we first must first look at previous epidemics and how the world coped with them. In the case of H1NI, the most common and widely deployed solution was thermal cameras. These cameras were deployed in every airport, mall and gathering areas to detect feverish people and provide them with assistance.

However, this approach has not been very effective in wider scale because a trained engineer had to be present in front of the camera to monitor people’s temperatures manually. As one can imagine, this turned out to be a very time consuming process. Moreover, humans tend to miss small details specially in very crowded places which can result in infected people slipping through.

The new generation of thermal cameras now come equipped with AI capabilities that enable a single operator to monitor 100s of thermal cameras at the same time without any training.

This is enabled by intelligent algorithms that detect people and read their temperatures from the most clinically accurate spots, then determine if a fever is present. What makes AI even more potent in this scenario is that it does not get tired or sleep which effectively means that it is protecting public health day and night.

This is a game changer compared to the old way of monitoring thermal information over a large scale.

In addition, governments now possess new sets of tools powered by AI which enable never before possible applications. In fact, the proactive governments which are the most successful in fighting corona merged innovative and timely policymaking with AI and big data to combat this epidemic in innovative and effective ways.

Governments use big data and AI systems to monitor and predict the spread of the virus with very high accuracy compared to the era of H1N1. These systems monitor various sources of information such as social media, news channels and even person to person interactions to come up with very accurate predictors of the spread of the virus.

On another front, researchers equipped with massive super computers are applying AI to find vaccines and cures faster than ever before. Some even generated the genetic sequence of the virus to better understand the way it works.

The future of fighting epidemics will be much different with the rapid development of AI. In fact, it will not be farfetched for the next virus/epidemic not spread fast enough for most people to hear about.

That is because scientists ‘with the aid of AI’ are developing advanced tools to very precisely find viruses and control its spread. If researchers achieve their vision, it might not be out of the ordinary for the vaccine / treatments to be available before the virus becomes wide spread.

However, to reach that stage we must learn from our experiences which teach us that AI is most effective when paired with supporting policies and legislations. Meanwhile we have a host of powerful systems powered by AI that are working day and night to ensure the safety of every citizen in not just the UAE but the entire world.

Dr. Abdelrahman Al Mahmoud is the Head of the UAE Research and Infrastructure — Artificial Intelligence Office