Wednesday, January 20, 2021

AI and COVID-19

The pandemic may lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the value of human collaboration and interaction

COVID-19 has had inconsistent consequences on artificial intelligence. The pandemic has stressed the extraordinary nature of AI as both a front-line technology, and one that counts on the status quo, for example. Pioneering AI systems have played a role in tackling the health crisis by following its range, detecting possible drug treatments, and scrutinizing through thousands of published papers on the topic for insights. At the same time, the pandemic poses primary challenges to AI techniques. 

The version of AI now in everyday use, machine learning, relies on historic training data and adopts that the patterns recognized in that data are still pertinent. However, during unparalleled circumstances, this type of supposition can be knotty. Approaches to addressing this problem include using human know-how to recognize the places where the causal rules of the process still apply, and collecting new training data that more accurately reflect the changed conditions. 

As the pandemic lingers, we should be able to accumulate enough real-world examples of its impact to underpin AI systems that can do things like detect COVID-19 in lung scans, or automatically filter out harmful misinformation about the pandemic.

However, we must not push aside the principles that govern AI use in our rush to address the crisis. Contact tracing apps, for example, have raised concerns about the collection of sensitive personal health and location data, and while it may be tempting to make exceptions during a crisis it may prove challenging to close these doors once they are opened. There has also been growing concern that the pandemic will accelerate the replacement of human workers with AI. While we might expect greater automation in situations where safety and distancing measures for a workplace are costly or infeasible, high levels of pandemic-related unemployment may actually reduce the cost of human labour and therefore bolster hiring in other areas. 

AI is still a relatively new technology, and its adoption requires investment and risk that companies in a crisis mode may not be ready for. And, many of the jobs most affected by the pandemic require face-to-face human interaction - the skill AI is least able to learn. It is possible that the pandemic will therefore lead to a better appreciation of the value of human contact, and new ideas about how to preserve it in the future.