Blog Post

Artificial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19

Artificial intelligence can help fight the coronavirus through applications including population screening, notifications of when to seek medical help and tracking how infection spreads. The COVID-19 outbreak has triggered intense work on such applications, but it will take time before results become visible.

By: Date: March 23, 2020 Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy

In the face of the coronavirus, digital technologies are vital for both social health and economic performance. A digital response to the COVID-19 pandemic can take multiple forms and bring significant value. One important area in which there have been rapid developments in the last few weeks is new applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for screening of the population and assessing infection risks.

Screening the population to identify who is potentially ill is crucial for containing COVID-19. In China, which was hit first, traditional infrared imaging scanners and handheld thermometers were introduced in multiple public locations, especially in Beijing. Chinese AI champion firms have now introduced more advanced AI-powered temperature screening systems in places including subway and railway stations. The advantage of these systems is that they can screen people from a distance and within minutes can test hundreds of individuals for fever. 

In China and elsewhere, new AI-powered smartphone apps are being developed to monitor individual’s health and track the geographical spread of the virus. Such apps aim to predict which populations and communities are most susceptible to the negative impacts of a coronavirus outbreak, to enable patients to receive real-time waiting-time information from their medical providers, to provide people with advice and updates about their medical condition without them having to visit a hospital in person, and to notify individuals of potential infection hotspots in real time so those areas can be avoided.

Data access

These technologies generally need access to data transmitted by mobile phones, including locational data. While the tools are being developed, it is important to also develop a framework so they can be as effective as possible in practice. For this, close coordination between authorities, telecoms operators, high-tech industry and research institutions is needed. High-tech firms and leading universities can provide the tools, telecoms firms can provide access to individuals’ data, and authorities should ensure that data sharing conforms with privacy rules and does not create risks the data of individuals will be misused.

For example, in Belgium, datasets from telecoms operators are combined with health data under the supervision of the Belgian Data Protection Authority in order to generate aggregate and anonymised regional-level datasets that can be used to assess how the virus spreads and which areas are high risk. Similar initiatives are underway in other countries. The real value of these efforts is that digital technologies can offer monitoring in real-time, enabling authorities to be more proactive. 

In Austria, the largest telecom operator reached an agreement with the authorities to provide anonymised data, while, a similar anonymised customer data-sharing mechanism has been put in place to track and analyse population movements in Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region.

Privacy-protecting applications

Academic research can also be helpful in illustrating how information sharing can be designed while avoiding privacy risks. The Human Dynamics Group at MIT Media Lab for example, has worked extensively with smartphone data to analyse the behaviour of individuals while respecting high privacy standards. It recommends secure multiparty computation to preserve users’ privacy. 

MIT’s privacy-friendly data mechanisms could be a basis for designing a data-sharing model to limit the spread of COVID-19. A consortium of epidemiologists, engineers, data scientists, privacy activists, professors and researchers from different parts of the world are working on an open-source smartphone app to prevent the spread of the virus without building a surveillance state. The app checks for overlaps of users’ GPS trails with the trails of all infected patients (whose anonymised data is provided by health authorities), while cryptographic methods are used and there is no sharing of raw data (personal data does not leave the device). This system provides early alerts and personalised information that allow individuals who signed up to the app to understand their own exposure and risks, based on earlier contact with infected patients. Such services can only be effective if a great number of patients and other individuals subscribe.

With such information as an input, research on (social) networks is trying to forecast how and to what extent the virus will spread, given a set of pre-determined parameters and characteristics. Authorities can use these scenarios to prepare their contingency plans in time.  

Using information on the time individuals spend in a particular location and on the number of infections that occur there, scientists create spatial models that depict the evolution of contacts between infected people, in order to capture how transmission evolves. One of the preliminary findings of such efforts is that predicting the transmission of COVID-19 is trickier than for previous viruses because individuals can carry the virus without showing symptoms, and their infections are therefore difficult to detect. A large number of the infections in Wuhan seem to have been transmitted through such asymptomatic carriers (Stanford’s Lin Lab estimates that 50% of infected individuals are asymptomatic). So, intensive COVID-19 testing programmes (like that implemented in South Korea) can be helpful by providing data for the better performance of these models.

AI can also be applied to the automatic detection and removal of misinformation related to the virus posted on social networks; producing highly accurate and timely CT scans for the detection of virus-induced pneumonia; 3D printing to produce the tools needed for intensive healthcare; optimisation of clinical trials of drugs and potential vaccines; development of robotic systems to sanitise infected areas; and online systems for the medical examination of individuals.

Timing is of course critical (a study on the 1918 influenza pandemic shows that US cities that adopted non-pharmaceutical measures at an early phase had peak death rates 50% lower than those that did not). Governments have been criticised for failing to understand the severity of the coronavirus situation and not imposing coordinated measures in time.

While the AI community is working intensively on delivering applications that can help to contain the virus, AI systems are still at a preliminary stage and it will take time before the results of such AI measures are visible. We are still far from the end of this tragic story.

 

 

 

 

 


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read article More by this author
 

Parliamentary Testimony

Employment and COVID-19

Testimony before the Economic Affairs Committee at the House of Lords, British Parliament on Employment and COVID-19.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Testimonies Date: September 9, 2020
Read article
 

Blog Post

Europe has an artificial-intelligence skills shortage

How severe is Europe’s dearth of AI talent and how does it compare to the United States, China and the United Kingdom – the world’s AI champions?

By: Julia Anderson, Paco Viry and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Date: August 27, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

Coronavirus recovery: invest rainy day savings to boost Hong Kong’s economy

The Hong Kong government might want to consider diversifying its economy by using part of the savings earmarked for rainy days. Beyond cushioning the negative impact of Covid-19 on SMEs and households, it is one more reason to spend.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: August 6, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

The Challenges of the Post-Pandemic Agenda

This opinion piece has previously been published in Project Syndicate. PARIS – There is a growing possibility that the COVID-19 crisis will mark the end of the growth model born four decades ago with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, China’s embrace of capitalism, and the demise of the Soviet Union. The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of […]

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 28, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Blog Post

New challenges to transfers of personal data from the EU to the United States

The judgment not only immediately invalidates Privacy Shield, but may also have the effect, once the dust has settled, of effectively blocking transfers of personal data to the USA using the popular mechanism of Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs).

By: J. Scott Marcus Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 20, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Government-guaranteed bank lending: beyond the headline numbers

Loan guarantees have been a major part of the COVID-19 support packages offered by European governments to companies. The actual take-up numbers so far follow very different patterns from the headline announcements, and might allay early concerns about single market distortions caused by the different sizes of packages in different countries.

By: Julia Anderson, Francesco Papadia and Nicolas Véron Date: July 14, 2020
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

An EU budget for Europe's future with Johannes Hahn

How do we make the EU fit for future?

Speakers: Zsolt Darvas, Johannes Hahn and Mehreen Khan Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: July 7, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Credible emerging market central banks could embrace quantitative easing to fight COVID-19

Emerging economies are fighting COVID-19 and the economic sudden stop imposed by the containment and lockdown policies, in the same way as advanced economies. However, emerging markets also face large and rapid capital outflows as a result of the pandemic. This column argues that credible emerging market central banks could rely on purchases of local currency government bonds to support the needed health and welfare expenditures and fiscal stimulus. In countries with flexible exchange rate regimes and well-anchored inflation expectations, such quantitative easing would help ease financial conditions, while minimising the risks of large depreciations and spiralling inflation.

By: Gianluca Benigno, Jon Hartley, Alicia García-Herrero, Alessandro Rebucci and Elina Ribakova Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 6, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

EU recovery plans should fund the COVID-19 battles to come; not be used to nurse old wounds

In its proposed Recovery Fund, the European Commission uses allocation criteria mainly linked to infection rates and past economic performance. To foster an efficient economic rebound post COVID-19 crisis, we propose instead to allocate funds through a forward-looking approach based on specific industrial and economic structure of EU regions.

By: Carlo Altomonte, Andrea Coali and Gianmarco Ottaviano Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 6, 2020
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Artificial intelligence’s great impact on low and middle-skilled jobs

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will significantly transform low-skilled jobs that have not yet been negatively affected by past technological change.

By: Sybrand Brekelmans and Georgios Petropoulos Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: June 29, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

Redefining Europe’s role after the Covid-19 Pandemic

How will the Covid 19 crisis change the role of the EU in Europe and the world?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 25, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

A tale of two pandemics

The two narratives briefly examined here cast light on different aspects of the EU in the times of Covid-19. Euroskeptic nationalists typically propagate claims of EU failure but have been rather subdued during the pandemic as mainstream governments have taken over their trademark policy of closing borders to foreigners. Nonetheless, the grip on power of several pro-EU mainstream leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron in France, Prime Minister Conte in Italy and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Spain, remains tenuous.

By: Michael Leigh Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 23, 2020
Load more posts