Article | March 9, 2021
For many, 2021 has brought hope that they can cautiously start to prepare for a world after Covid. That includes living with the possibility of future pandemics, and starting to reflect on what has been learned from such a brutal shared experience. One of the areas that has come into its own during Covid has been artificial intelligence (AI), a technology that helped bring the pandemic under control, and allow life to continue through lockdowns and other disruptions.
Plenty has been written about how AI has supported many aspects of life at work and home during Covid, from videoconferencing to online food ordering. But the role of AI in preventing Covid causing even more havoc is not necessarily as widely known. Perhaps even more importantly, little has been said about the role AI is likely to play in preparing for, responding to and even preventing future pandemics.
From what we saw in 2020, AI will help prevent global outbreaks of new diseases in three ways: prediction, diagnosis and treatment.
Predicting pandemics is all about tracking data that could be possible early signs that a new disease is spreading in a disturbing way. The kind of data we’re talking about includes public health information about symptoms presenting to hospitals and doctors around the world. There is already plenty of this captured in healthcare systems globally, and is consolidated into datasets such as the Johns Hopkins reports that many of us are familiar with from news briefings.
Firms like Bluedot and Metabiota are part of a growing number of organisations which use AI to track both publicly available and private data and make relevant predictions about public health threats. Both of these received attention in 2020 by reporting the appearance of Covid before it had been officially acknowledged. Boston Children’s Hospital is an example of a healthcare institution doing something similar with their Healthmap resource.
In addition to conventional healthcare data, AI is uniquely able to make use of informal data sources such as social media, news aggregators and discussion forums. This is because of AI techniques such as natural language processing and sentiment analysis. Firms such as Stratifyd use AI to do this in other business settings such as marketing, but also talk publicly about the use of their platform to predict and prevent pandemics. This is an example of so-called augmented intelligence, where AI is used to guide people to noteworthy data patterns, but stops short of deciding what it means, leaving that to human judgement.
Another important part of preventing a pandemic is keeping track of the transmission of disease through populations and geographies. A significant issue in 2020 was difficulty tracing people who had come into contact with infection. There was some success using mobile phones for this, and AI was critical in generating useful knowledge from mobile phone data.
The emphasis of Covid tracing apps in 2020 was keeping track of how the disease had already spread, but future developments are likely to be about predicting future spread patterns from such data. Prediction is a strength of AI, and the principles used to great effect in weather forecasting are similar to those used to model likely pandemic spread.
To prevent future pandemics, it won’t be enough to predict when a disease is spreading rapidly. To make the most of this knowledge, it’s necessary to diagnose and treat cases. One of the greatest early challenges with Covid was the lack of speedy, reliable tests.
For future pandemics, AI is likely to be used to create such tests more quickly than was the case in 2020. Creating a useful test involves modelling a disease’s response to different testing reagents, finding right balance between speed, convenience and accuracy. AI modelling simulates in a computer how individual cells respond to different stimuli, and could be used to perform virtual testing of many different types of test to accelerate how quickly the most promising ones reach laboratory and field trials.
In 2020 there were also several novel uses of AI to diagnose Covid, but there were few national and global mechanisms to deploy these at scale. One example was the use of AI imaging, diagnosing Covid by analysing chest x-rays for features specific to Covid. This would have been especially valuable in places that didn’t have access to lab testing equipment. Another example was using AI to analyse the sound of coughs to identify unique characteristics of a Covid cough.
AI research to systematically investigate innovative diagnosis techniques such as these should result in better planning for alternatives to laboratory testing. Faster and wider rollout of this kind of diagnosis would help control spread of a future disease during the critical period waiting for other tests to be developed or shared. This would be another contribution of AI to preventing a localised outbreak becoming a pandemic.
Historically, vaccination has proven to be an effective tool for dealing with pandemics, and was the long term solution to Covid for most countries. AI was used to accelerate development of Covid vaccines, helping cut the development time from years or decades to months. In principle, the use of AI was similar to that described above for developing diagnostic tests.
Different drug development teams used AI in different ways, but they all relied on mathematical modelling of how the Covid virus would respond to many forms of treatment at a microscopic level.
Much of the vaccine research and modelling focused on the “spike” proteins that allow Covid to attack human cells and enter the body. These are also found in other viruses, and were already the subject of research before the 2020 pandemic. That research allowed scientists to quickly develop AI models to represent the spikes, and simulate the effects of different possible treatments. This was crucial in trialling thousands of possible treatments in computer models, pinpointing the most likely successes for further investigation.
This kind of mathematical simulation using AI continued during drug development, and moved substantial amounts of work from the laboratory to the computer.
This modelling also allowed the impact of Covid mutations on vaccines to be assessed quickly. It is why scientists were reasonably confident of developing variants of vaccines for new Covid mutations in days and weeks rather than months.
As a result of the global effort to develop Covid vaccines, the body of data and knowledge about virus behaviour has grown substantially. This means it should be possible to understand new pathogens even more rapidly than Covid, potentially in hours or days rather than weeks.
AI has also helped create new ways of approaching vaccine development, for example the use of pre-prepared generic vaccines designed to treat viruses from the same family as Covid. Modifying one of these to the specific features of a new virus is much faster than starting from scratch, and AI may even have already simulated exactly such a variation.
AI has been involved in many parts of the fight against Covid, and we now have a much better idea than in 2020 of how to predict, diagnose and treat pandemics, especially similar viruses to Covid. So we can be cautiously optimistic that vaccine development for any future Covid-like viruses will be possible before it becomes a pandemic. Perhaps a trickier question is how well we will be able to respond if the next pandemic is from a virus that is nothing like Covid.
Was Rahman is an expert in the ethics of artificial intelligence, the CEO of AI Prescience and the author of AI and Machine Learning. See more at www.wasrahman.com
Article | December 21, 2020
Machine Learning (ML) has taken strides over the past few years, establishing its place in data analytics. In particular, ML has become a cornerstone in data science, alongside data wrangling, and data visualization, among other facets of the field. Yet, we observe many organizations still hesitant when allocating a budget for it in their data pipelines. The data engineer role seems to attract lots of attention, but few companies leverage the machine learning expert/engineer. Could it be that ML can add value to other enterprises too? Let's find out by clarifying certain concepts.
What Machine Learning is
So that we are all on the same page, let's look at a down-to-earth definition of ML that you can include in a company meeting, a report, or even within an email to a colleague who isn't in this field. Investopedia defines ML as "the concept that a computer program can learn and adapt to new data without human intervention." In other words, if your machine (be it a computer, a smartphone, or even a smart device) can learn on its own, using some specialized software, then it's under the ML umbrella. It's important to note that ML is also a stand-alone field of research, predating most AI systems, even if the two are linked, as we'll see later on.
How Machine Learning is different from Statistics
It's also important to note that ML is different from Statistics, even if some people like to view the former as an extension of the latter. However, there is a fundamental difference that most people aren't aware of yet. Namely, ML is data-driven while Statistics is, for the most part, model-driven. This statement means that most Stats-based inferences are made by assuming a particular distribution in the data, or the interactions of different variables, and making predictions based on our mathematical models of these distributions. ML may employ distributions in some niche cases, but for the most part, it looks at data as-is, without making any assumptions about it.
Machine Learning’s role in data science work
Let’s now get to the crux of the matter and explore how ML can be a significant value-add to a data science pipeline. First of all, ML can potentially offer better predictions than most Stats models in terms of accuracy, F1 score, etc. Also, ML can work alongside existing models to form model ensembles that can tackle the problems more effectively. Additionally, if transparency is important to the project stakeholders, there are ML-based options for offering some insight as to what variables are important in the data at hand, for making predictions based on it. Moreover, ML is more parametrized, meaning that you can tweak an ML model more, adapting it to the data you have and ensuring more robustness (i.e., reliability). Finally, you can learn ML without needing a Math degree or any other formal training. The latter, however, may prove useful, if you wish to delve deeper into the topic and develop your own models. This innovation potential is a significant aspect of ML since it's not as easy to develop new models in Stats (unless you are an experienced Statistics researcher) or even in AI. Besides, there are a bunch of various "heuristics" that are part of the ML group of algorithms, facilitating your data science work, regardless of what predictive model you end up using.
Machine Learning and AI
Many people conflate ML with AI these days. This confusion is partly because many ML models involve artificial neural networks (ANNs) which are the most modern manifestation of AI. Also, many AI systems are employed in ML tasks, so they are referred to as ML systems since AI can be a bit generic as a term. However, not all ML algorithms are AI-related, nor are all AI algorithms under the ML umbrella. This distinction is of import because certain limitations of AI systems (e.g., the need for lots and lots of data) don't apply to most ML models, while AI systems tend to be more time-consuming and resource-heavy than the average ML one. There are several ML algorithms you can use without breaking the bank and derive value from your data through them. Then, if you find that you need something better, in terms of accuracy, you can explore AI-based ones. Keep in mind, however, that some ML models (e.g., Decision Trees, Random Forests, etc.) offer some transparency, while the vast majority of AI ones are black boxes.
Learning more about the topic
Naturally, it's hard to do this topic justice in a single article. It is so vast that someone can write a book on it! That's what I've done earlier this year, through the Technics Publications publishing house. You can learn more about this topic via this book, which is titled Julia for Machine Learning(Julia is a modern programming language used in data science, among other fields, and it's popular among various technical professionals). Feel free to check it out and explore how you can use ML in your work. Cheers!
Article | February 27, 2020
When it comes to adopting artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities, it’s important to look at its range of effects from many different viewpoints.According to Senior Advisor for AI at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Martin Stanley, his agency wanted to look at adoption through three different perspectives: how CISA was going to use AI, how stakeholders will use AI, and how U.S. adversaries are going to use AI.You have to understand the needs of your stakeholders, but you also have to do it fast,” Stanley said at a Feb. 26 ServiceNow Federal Forum, adding that it’s a challenge to take in all the necessary information and deliver an outcome. AI and ML can help streamline this process. Stanley spoke about how a big percentage of the AI implementation is being purposeful in how the government’s data is managed and taking care of the data and technology is a key part to the adoption process. He also added that helping people by making work more efficient is key to why AI adoption is important saying: At the end of the day, this is all about helping people.
Article | March 19, 2020
Business agility is the name of the game in 2020. Last year, the US-China trade wars gave business leaders around the world a preview of what it looks like when change and uncertainty become the new normal in the global economy—and for those caught flatfooted, it wasn’t pretty. Here we are nearly one year later and the world has changed dramatically once again. The trade war fiasco? That was just a dress rehearsal compared to what we are living through today with the recent outbreak of COVID-19. At times like these, few things matter more than having visibility into and the freedom to innovate with data to address the necessary business agility.