When we wrapped up and handed over the manuscript in the early days of March 2020, little did we know about the immense changes coming into our lives worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, merely weeks later. Now it looks more like a long-term endurance test for most of the world. While the globe is in freeze mode and most countries are literally or practically quarantined, early news reports were channeling panic, hoarding, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Society, businesses, and governments are scrambling in face of the unknown with walls, quarantines and border closures – and their inevitable socioeconomic consequences.
Fortunately, the chaos of utter confusion was swiftly transcended by a few of the AI cognoscenti, pointing out how a wide range of AI technologies may be deployed to help solve the healthcare crisis at each stage. The AI arsenal was uniquely valuable in spotting the virus early by scouting more than a hundred multi-sourced datasets. In parallel, AI was used to map and track the spread of the pandemic with a similar multi-data technique, combining sources not typically used by epidemiologists. In China, AI performed testing and diagnosis with slight modifications from their original purpose of detecting various types of cancer, for example. Alibaba’s AI claims a diagnostic success rate of 96% and that in under 30 seconds. Early-hit South Korea benefited highly from AI and automation used in speeding up the development and distribution of virus testing kits, avoiding shortages that have struck the West since.
AI-generated predictions of virus structure can significantly speed up the path to having safe and working vaccines available within months. AI leading companies are now opening up their predictive algorithms for researchers worldwide, both ones that have a direct use in treatment development (e.g. free modeling of its protein structures by DeepMind), but similarly, ones that deal with the economic ramifications of the pandemic, predicting in real-time when certain facets of economic life may resume their course post-disruption.
The virus is teaching us hard lessons in both virality and exponentiality. We hope that this newfound realization will help humanity steer AI technology better as well. Another essential trait in common between the virus and AI is that both are made to learn and evolve, sometimes mutate with unforeseeable consequences. The future of public health may, therefore, become a race between evolving AI and mutating viruses with the final aim of achieving near-real-time capturing, treatment development and intervention.
While existing hostilities and rivalries have not ceased, there are promising signs that some of the dire competitors may have realized that the problem is truly global and definitely not zero-sum. You can stall it by shutting down, but that is far from being a solution. When it comes to a pandemic, both a country and the planet are just as strong as their weakest human link. Long-term solutions for this virus and the next ones that will inevitably arise will stem from strengthened global cooperation frameworks supported by integrated public health AI systems in place.
While sorely lacking that shared framework, there are fledgling initiatives that should become much stronger, more widely adopted and more strategic. The White House put together the most extensive collection of coronavirus literature in one machine-readable, centralized open hub as a call to action for the AI community to help uncover unique insights in the body of data. The EU is fast-tracking the funding of innovation projects that are relevant to dealing with the epidemic. China, which seems to be at a much later stage of the epidemic curve, is sending expert teams and protective equipment to heavy-hit countries. Often-criticized corporations are making immense pledges and rerouting their production for the common good. Thousands of tech startups made their services free to help us cope with a life virtualized in an instant. Mass national-level hackathons to build anti-crisis tech solutions are becoming surprisingly ordinary. Humanity started reorganizing itself with pop-up communities cropping up suddenly, offering solidarity, support, analysis and a chance to jointly rethink the path ahead. Strategic thinking about AI and its adoption will most likely be very much accelerated by the crisis and AI will be instrumental in the post-crisis rebuilding. Globalization in its present form will be rethought and many new models will emerge, balancing global and local.
Isolation can also be splendid – many generations before us were aware of that. If we are granted time to think and to revisit our values, our better nature as a local and global community emerges. At this point, it is hard to estimate which scenario will prevail at the macro level: that of AI technology and human solidarity together defeating the epidemic – or that of a long-lasting nightmare, devastating the economy for a long time and robbing more lives than the world wars did. We remain confident that once the crisis is over, life may not just return to “normal”, but that we spend the time and effort experimenting with new models that may resemble the ones laid out in this book, to reshape our modus vivendi as a civilization.
This is an opportunity to reboot, reframe, and redesign our future. And for that, the ultima ratio should be augmented intelligence and humane wisdom, walking hand in hand.