Tech Perspectives

Fighting COVID-19 with Emerging Technologies

Explore the innovative technologies, including AI and 5G, being used to combat COVID-19 with IDC's Chris Kanthan.
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COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has spread all over the world, freezing the global economy to a large extent. Many countries and regions are under lockdown, and the death toll keeps rising. Since the virus is new, there are no vaccines or proven treatments. In this dire situation, technology is playing a critical role in containing and mitigating this pandemic.

While this coronavirus crisis needs whole-of-a-society approach that entails individuals (remember social distancing), medical professionals and governments, there is one more potent tool: technology. Particularly, emerging technology. IDC looks at some of the incredible ways that emerging technologies such as AI, 5G, IoT, robotics, blockchain and 3D printing have helped combat the coronavirus.

A consortium of technology leaders has created an AI-infused database of research papers related to the novel coronavirus. Funded by Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and others, the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) uses AI/ML and natural language processing to extract insights from thousands of articles related to the SARS-Cov-2 virus and the COVID-19 disease. This will be immensely helpful to governments, doctors, scientists and epidemiologists in forecasting infection rates, implementing the best policies for containment, understanding the molecular biology of virus, predicting the evolution of virus, screening and diagnosing patients, detecting the virus, choosing the best treatments etc.

Google’s DeepMind has used AI to make predictions about the coronavirus’ protein structures, which will in turn help develop the appropriate antiviral drugs.

AI for Drugs and Vaccines

Since we already have a good understanding of how the coronavirus binds to and infects human cells, scientists are racing to find molecules that can bind to the virus and disrupt its growth. To discover this vital information, data scientists are using deep learning models equipped with the RNA details of the coronavirus to predict which known compounds and antiviral drugs would be the most effective.

In a similar effort, IBM’s Summit supercomputer analyzed thousands of compounds and has identified 77 promising compounds that can bind to the spike protein of the coronavirus and slow down the replication of virus. Impressively, this was done in just two days, while typically it takes years to find the right solutions in such cases. However, this is just the first step, since there are other considerations such as side effects and feasibility of mass producing these compounds.

A biotech startup, Insilico Medicine, has gone further by using AI to conjure up hundreds of new, non-existent compounds that have the potential to fight the coronavirus. The company used a machine learning system known as Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), where two neural networks compete with one another to reach the optimal solution.

Machine learning algorithms are also used to predict how potential drugs would behave in the human body, thereby drastically reducing the time to market.

Baidu made its ultra-fast deep learning algorithm available to scientists, who are using it to predict the mutation of virus and then design vaccines accordingly.

AI to Read CT scans

COVID-19 typically results in pneumonia and lung damage, which can be analyzed through computed tomography (CT) scans. Trained doctors can read chest CT scans and identify the pneumonia caused by different bacteria and viruses. However, it typically takes 15 minutes for a doctor to read each CT scan. Here’s where computer vision comes to the rescue. With just 5,000 CT scans of coronavirus patients, an AI model can be trained to detect COVID-19 to a high degree of accuracy, and more impressively, do it in just 20 seconds.

In the last month, companies such as Alibaba and Infervision have developed AI models that have 96% or more accuracy in detecting COVID-19 by reading CT scans. As these models are fed more CT scans, their accuracy will surpass the best doctors in the world.

Autonomous Vehicles and Drones for Delivery

Social distancing is a paramount strategy to contain or mitigate any pandemic, and this is where autonomous vehicles and drones can play a big role. In city of Wuhan, JD.com used its autonomous delivery vehicles to provide medical supplies to hospitals. Another company, EHang, used its autonomous drones to deliver supplies to hospitals. In many quarantined areas in China, smaller drones were used to deliver food to people who couldn’t leave their homes.

Robots in Hospitals

One of the dangers of COVID19 is medical staff getting infected with the virus. Thus, robots can be extremely helpful in hospitals. In Wuhan, robots from companies such as PuduTech were used for many tasks such as disinfecting hospitals and delivering food and medicine to patients. This also saved a lot of time for the hospital staff, who were overwhelmed during the peak of the crisis. Doctors also used robots to video chat with patients in intensive care units, thus providing good care for the patients while protecting the healthcare professionals at the same time.

Mobile restaurants operated by robots were also used in Wuhan. One example is Foodom, a robot chef that can make 120 hot pot meals in an hour.

Big Data and Analytics

To successfully control and eventually stop the pandemic, governments need accurate, granular and real-time information such as the count and distribution of confirmed cases. Such information can also identify clusters and super-spreaders that need to be addressed immediately. Contact-tracing is also an important tool in identifying and isolating suspected cases. While privacy laws may hinder this approach, some countries like China and Israel have used location data from the smartphones of coronavirus patients to track down and test others who came into contact with the patient.

An interesting company called BlueDot uses big data and AI to predict outbreaks of diseases. The company analyzes information from official sources such as CDC as well as 100,000 news articles from media around the world.

5G

When China built two new hospitals in ten days in Wuhan, it leveraged Huawei’s 5G base-stations to quickly bring the hospitals online. 5G’s large bandwidth and small latency made telemedicine possible. Doctors in Beijing could diagnose patients in Wuhan and could quickly access CT scans that were uploaded to the cloud. Lastly, 5G-enabled drones and autonomous vehicles are excellent examples of innovation multipliers.

3D Printing

From China to Italy to New York, many hospitals have found themselves lacking tools and devices due to the exponential surge in sick people. While some devices like the ventilators need skilled manufacturing, other essential items such as goggles and face shields can be quickly produced using 3D printing. That’s precisely what has been happening in China, Europe and the US.

3D printing was also used in China to make portable hospital rooms for individual patients.

Blockchain

IBM’s new project, MiPasa, uses blockchain to map people who tested positive, where people can and can’t go, and who is at high risk of exposure and must be quarantined again. Such strategies will be essential in restoring the global economy.

Advice for Technology Vendors

During an overwhelming crisis such as this pandemic, technology vendors need to demonstrate extreme agility and creativity to both survive and help the society. The examples illustrated in this article show how AI, big data, robotics etc. are playing a vital role. Obviously, vendors in these areas of technology should quickly innovate new products and services to assist the healthcare system and governments at all levels.

However, the need for novel solutions extends to almost every industry – retail, manufacturing, distribution, IT, healthcare, hospitality and more. Those who can collect data in real-time and glean actionable insights will be the big winners during this crisis. Whether it’s keeping track of toilet paper in grocery stores, predicting hospitals’ need for ventilators, discovering the best treatment for COVID19, helping enterprises optimize their IT infrastructure – for example, by migrating to the cloud – to offset declining revenues, or innovating new products to help people work from home, nimble technology vendors can make vital contributions and come out of this crisis as market leaders.

Given that emerging technologies, by definition, are still not mature and widely deployed, their adoption and use in fighting the coronavirus have been impressive. Some technologies could have been leveraged to a greater extent, if they were cheaper and more available.

For example, wearables (IoT) will be helpful in monitoring patients in hospitals as well as suspected COVID-19 cases who are under quarantine; robots could be more prevalent in hospitals; and autonomous vehicles/drones could have played a bigger role. The good news is that all these life-saving technologies will improve dramatically very soon and play bigger roles in the world of hyper-connectivity and hyper-speed.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is impacting the global economy at nearly every level. Anticipate market challenges and keep business moving with IDC’s extensive COVID-19 research and advice.

Chris Kanthan

Research Manager, Cloud BuyerView