Artificial intelligence has been key to fighting coronavirus – it can do more too

Munib Mesinovic

Published: Updated:

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to revolutionize all aspects of human society as part of a “fourth industrial revolution.” COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of AI and forced governments and the public alike to adapt to a new world in which effectively deploying these technologies in key areas cannot just improve lives, but also save them. Great strides can be made to transform economies and communities by focusing on the integration of AI in two key sectors: education and healthcare.

AI has played a key role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Before the WHO notified the public of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, an AI health monitoring company using the “BlueDot” algorithim had already detected the outbreak and predicted its spread to its customers. Since then, AI has been applied to repurposing drugs, enabling safer air travel, sharing critical information to Arabic-speakers, and in facilitating test and trace in several countries. While these efforts might have helped in managing the crisis, AI has encountered limitations that do not allow us to use it to its full potential.

The obvious reason for this hindrance is the lack of large, clean, and processed datasets. AI works by recognizing patterns: the more data it has available to learn from, the more accurate it will be when encountering new situations like modelling a new COVID-19 spread or detecting an infection from CT scans. The solution is as equally obvious: create more datasets. To do so, we, like AI, need to learn from our mistakes and build more flexible systems that can be quickly deployed in collecting data and managing it ethically and responsibly.

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The creation of these new systems necessitates a skilled workforce familiar with the fundamental principles of AI and at least somewhat experienced in its applications. As with any skill or knowledge, education is instrumental in building a knowledge-based sustainable system capable of responding not just to COVID-19, but future challenges with creativity, consistency, and coherence. While there are plenty of open access platforms for teaching AI, having a standardized and systemic approach to nurturing next generations of leaders and thinkers makes it possible for everyone to have an opportunity to learn while also enabling a smoother transition into the work environment.

People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak are seen near a robot at the venue for the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China July 9, 2020. (Reuters)
People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak are seen near a robot at the venue for the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China July 9, 2020. (Reuters)

Of course, this strategy might be pursued gradually, by first encouraging teaching AI principles (with applications) interfaced with coursework in economics, natural sciences, public policy, and engineering, then integrating it in high school curricula and so on. The benefits of introducing AI to high school students and children include stimulating critical thinking and problem solving, helping diversify the STEM landscape, and enabling them to understand the technology that increasingly surrounds them in everyday life. Several countries are already pursuing and leading on this path. The UAE, for example, just opened the first university solely dedicated to AI, and innovative technology is a centrepiece in multiple national agendas like Agenda 2071 and the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031. To move forward in this direction, we should encourage young people to explore AI by including it in our educational curricula gradually and thus enable them to help us respond effectively to global challenges to come.

As already mentioned, AI has helped healthcare services to track the spread of the virus and help find treatment for the disease, but AI has the potential to do much more. COVID-19 has forced our healthcare system to prioritize clinical staff and serious afflictions, thereby speeding up the process of moving other patients or care receivers to remote care. In combination with telehealth or telemedicine, AI can make it possible to effectively relegate routine check-ups and diagnoses with remote monitoring. There are both academic research groups and companies actively focusing on monitoring, predicting, and diagnosing diseases with AI ranging from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to cancer. It is important to note that the social implications of AI are also an area of research and should be considered by taking into account occurrence of bias and data ethics. This can be addressed by increasing the diversity of the data so that, for example, the algorithm does not privilege white patients over people of colour. Choosing what attributes of the data matter for the algorithm is also a subjective decision that needs to be made carefully and ethically.

In certain cases, AI helped identify diagnoses doctors missed or assisted in the delivery of better care. Other research is looking at at-a-distance surgeries made possible in partnership with advances in robotics that can bring the operating room to people who might not usually have access to one. Mayo Clinic and other hospitals in the United States and Europe are already deploying a version of this technology in traditional surgical procedures.

AI is not here to replace doctors but to enable a more effective healthcare system and the allocation of resources. We need to comprehensively integrate the technology into our healthcare system by both revamping existing modes of care and inventing new ones. This cannot be done without consultation with clinicians, specialists, and healthcare professionals as they would still be “leading in the operating room.” Our first steps should therefore include training for doctors to teach them to operate the software which needs to be deployed through collaboration between the healthcare, insurance industries, and the public sector. Doing so will guarantee better healthcare and a more resilient and healthy population amid enduring global health challenges like COVID-19.

We also must face the possibility that the pandemic might be here to stay longer than initially expected, or that other similar challenges might appear soon after. The strategies for developing stronger systems in healthcare should be boldly pursued, taking full advantage of the technological progress we have made and can still make. In the end, while the pandemic might have forced our hand in implementing these changes, they were always a step in the right direction – improving quality of life and advancing our society.


Munib Mesinovic is a recent graduate of NYU Abu Dhabi and a current Masters student in Computer Science at the University of Oxford. He is a UAE Rhodes Scholar and the first Bosnian Rhodes Scholar. He tweets @munibmesinovic

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.