What We Are Learning About the Capabilities of AI during COVID-19
In the space of a few months, the world around us has changed beyond all recognition – and as we come to terms with the fact that we aren’t getting our lives back any time soon, technology is helping us to adapt. We take a look at how AI is proving its mettle during the COVID-19 outbreak, and how it is shaping up to be a crucial ally in achieving a socially distant society.
Healthy interest in AI
As we highlighted last month, AI projects and applications have been enlisted into the fight against COVID-19 in enormous numbers.
Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold helped to predict the 3D structures of the virus’ proteins within months – a process that has taken years in the past.
In Oxford, AI VIVO used its technology to create a shortlist of 31 potentially effective COVID-19 drug candidates from a total of 90,000 compounds. It took just 15 days, shaving years off the traditionally decade-long drug development pathway.
These are not the only examples of how AI is being utilised in COVID-19 research and healthcare. Algorithms and machine learning are helping to train medical staff, keep researchers informed of latest developments, and map outbreak hotspots.
With every success in this heavily regulated and evidence-based setting, AI is proving it is safe, reliable and – above all – valuable.
Socially distant technology
Med tech is not the only place AI is making its mark as society adapts to the so-called “new normal”.
In the absence of a vaccine or highly effective treatments, social distancing, is here to stay – despite being fundamentally at odds with how we live our lives. It means that technologies once viewed as dystopian now offer crucial solutions.
In February, the first Amazon Go Grocery store opened in Seattle. This new breed of “connected supermarkets” eliminates the need for till staff or queues – perfect for the current climate.
Said the company: “Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.
“Just Walk Out Technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When you’re done shopping, you can just leave the store. Later, we’ll send you a receipt and charge your Amazon account.”
It’s worth noting that Sainsbury’s trialled its own version of a till-free store last year in a pre-COVID London.
The pilot, which asked people to scan and pay for their shopping via an app, ended after three months, with managers saying that customers “were not ready” for it. Time will tell if necessity will breed a different attitude towards socially distant shopping.
Bring in the bots
We are learning more about COVID-19 all the time, and one thing that is abundantly clear is that older people and those with underlying health conditions are particularly susceptible. It means that, at least for the time being, reducing the amount of human contact seniors have is the best way to keep them safe.
The Belgian company ZoraBots has risen to the challenge with a home robot that helps the elderly communicate with loved ones. While the bots are hardly a replacement for social interaction, they can help to ease feelings of isolation, at least in the short term.
Cleaning regimes, crucial to national efforts to lift lockdown restrictions, are also getting an AI makeover. Automated disinfection robots, for example, can ensure hospitals, airports, hospitality and retail spaces are cleaned thoroughly, frequently and without putting human workers at risk.
Phil Duffy, vice president of product at Brain Corp, which has set up a $1.6 million programme to donate robots to essential businesses in the United States, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has induced heavy bouts of panic-buying at grocery stores and big-box retailers nationwide, with no immediate signs of slowing down.
“Already, many national chains, including Walmart and Kroger, have announced reduced hours to restock shelves, deep clean and sanitize the stores, and give exhausted employees a break.”
Robotic cleaners, such as those powered by the company’s cloud-connected AI software platform BrainOS, he said, hold at least part of the answer.
The world is changing and everyone, from the richest to the poorest nations, must adapt to the new reality.
There’s no doubt that necessity is driving society to embrace machine learning, robotics and deep learning.
AI, long touted as the technology of the future, is stepping up to the plate, helping scientists find answers and offering solutions to day-to-day challenges.
Whether this shift is temporary or permanent remains to be seen, but there is no denying that the technology – and those behind it – face a great opportunity.
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