Executives from major technical giants Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have been meeting to discuss their role in the coronavirus crisis. One of the many topics was their role in modeling and tracking data.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data were a key part of China’s response to the virus. Why should that be any different for the United States or other countries?

Sharing data is an important part of that task and not all countries see that task from the same perspective.

Facebook has already been working with researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, sharing anonymized data about people’s movements and high-resolution population density maps, which can help forecast the spread of the virus. The social network is also helping partners understand how people are talking about the issue online.

In the past, Google search data has been used to track infectious diseases. Now, to help people who want to track their own health, Google’s life-science research arm, Verily is developing a small body-worn temperature patch that transmits data to a phone app.

One of the big areas of concern is misinformation. So far, there has not been any comprehensive study of how much misinformation remains on platforms such as Google and Facebook but it is likely to be substantial.

Google said its team was working around the clock to safeguard users from phishing, conspiracy theories, malware and misinformation.

British start-up Exscienta became the first company to put an AI-designed drug molecule up for human trials earlier this year. It took just 12 months for algorithms to create it, compared with four to five years for traditional research.

It is thought that AI could be used in three ways in the current crisis:

  • to rapidly develop antibodies and vaccines for the COVID-19 virus
  • to scan through existing drugs to see if any could be repurposed
  • to design a drug to fight both the current and future coronavirus outbreaks

Scientists have praised the way those at the forefront of the outbreak had so quickly released data, which would be crucial for any algorithms searching for a cure. But it is important to be realistic about what AI could achieve.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Data Harmony, a unit of Access Innovations, the world leader in indexing and making content findable.