Artificial Intelligence aiding fight against coronavirus

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Operators of thermal imaging technology can see live footage that will highlight likely infected people. (AFP)
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Drones fitted with heat detecting cameras help to spot people who might have the virus. (AFP)
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The data gathered is closely analysed to track patterns of spread that help identify infection hotspots. (AFP)
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Updated 16 April 2020

Artificial Intelligence aiding fight against coronavirus

  • Scientific institutions and governments have already been harnessing AI to generate possible solutions
  • AI is assisting medical professionals to identity components of a vaccine

DUBAI: Four months into the battle against the latest strain of the coronavirus, it is clear that humanity must deploy all medical and technological tools at its disposal.

Roughly half the global population has been placed on lockdown and billions of dollars are being poured into vaccine research, yet the total number of confirmed cases worldwide has hit the two million mark.  

With no sign of an imminent breakthrough, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to speed up the search for an antidote to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19 is a no-brainer.

In fact, scientific institutions and governments have already been harnessing AI to generate possible solutions to the global public-health emergency.

Shameer Thaha, CSO at Accubits, a UAE-based AI and blockchain focused solutions and development company, says AI is playing a key role since day one of the fight against humanity’s common foe.

AI is assisting medical professionals to identity components of a potential coronavirus vaccine by “analyzing viral protein structures” and helping researchers scan through thousands of research papers, according to Thaha.

Recently, Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold was used to predict structures of proteins associated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“There are three types of vaccines: Whole-pathogen vaccines, subunit vaccines, and nucleic acid vaccines,” Thaha said, adding that the last is the kind of vaccine needed to target the coronavirus.

“Nucleic acid vaccines inject the genetic material of the pathogen into human cells to stimulate an immune response …  and AI is useful in accelerating the development of subunit and nucleic acid vaccines,” Thaha said.

Electronic tracking of individuals is another activity that is benefiting from advances in AI in recent years.

 

(Video supplied by Visory)

Governments and police forces in many cities are utilizing AI-powered video analytics software and computer vision to ensure that people are obeying lockdown rules and maintaining social distance.

These tools can detect everything from large crowds in public spaces to the number of people not wearing a mask, while automatically alerting the local police department to take action, said Thaha.

In this regard, he cited a Pandemic Management System developed by his company, which has contracts with DP World in Dubai and Saudi Aramco in the Kingdom, as an AI tool that is proving useful for authorities.

The system uses AI to conduct exposure analysis of the infection and makes attempts to identity areas at high risk in advance, said Thaha.

He said governments can enlist the help of AI-based systems to contain the spread of the virus by “easily monitoring the location of people in self-isolation or quarantine and tracking routes traveled by newly identified coronavirus positive patients.”

According to Karen K. Burns, co-founder and CEO of Visory, a computer vision AI company with an urban technology focus, various degrees of surveillance methods are being used by countries during the coronavirus crisis.

While some can take part in active monitoring of individuals in quarantine, others can carry out general checks on public places.

“It is still impossible to monitor every single individual at the scale of an entire country,” Burns said, adding that “it is also not desirable from the point of view of privacy.”

Elaborating on the issue, she said: “AI’s key strength, in our view, is utilizing it more as a tool to understand whether or not people are actually doing things like social distancing and staying at home rather than using it for surveillance of individuals.”

For example, many governments are using computer vision to detect how close people are to each other and how long they stay close to each other.

In Europe, according to Burns, AI is being used by governments to predict activities that could cause the coronavirus to spread.

By the same token, face recognition and computer vision are being used to enforce curfews, she said.

One of the clear downsides of the sharp increase in governments’ dependence on AI tools is the possible abuse of information collected from its citizens.

However, until mankind sees at least a glimmer of hope of halting the pandemic, whether privacy protection or public health will receive priority is anybody’s guess.


China’s tech titans fight for cloud control

Updated 04 July 2020

China’s tech titans fight for cloud control

  • Tencent flexes its muscles in race with arch-rival Alibaba as pandemic opens new business frontiers

HONG KONG: For Chinese cloud services companies, the coronavirus outbreak has become a rainmaker, bringing in new business far and wide as firms shift work online, and authorities develop apps and systems to help contain outbreaks and manage social restrictions.

For Tencent Holdings, in particular, it has also become the perfect time to flex new muscles as it seeks to catch up with Alibaba Group Holding, its arch-rival and the dominant player in the country’s cloud market by far.

Tencent began to display a new level of aggressiveness after positioning its cloud business as a major area of growth in September 2018, and that has only amped up amid the pandemic, employees say.

“The competition with Alibaba is so fierce right now, the sales teams are fighting them for every deal,” said a source in Tencent’s cloud division who was not authorized to speak on the matter and declined to be identified.

This year alone, Tencent has hired more than 3,000 employees for its cloud division. And as China went into lockdown and demand for corporate video bandwidth surged in February, it added 100,000 cloud servers in eight days to support a two-month old product, Tencent Conference — a feat the company says is unprecedented in Chinese cloud computing history.

It has expanded use of cloud servers designed in-house, pledged to speed up construction of a digital industry center in Wuhan to handle cloud and smart city projects in central China and joined a central government initiative to support pandemic-hit small businesses with free cloud services.

The social media and gaming behemoth also announced in May it will invest 500 billion yuan ($70 billion) over five years in technology infrastructure including cloud computing — just weeks after Alibaba said it would invest 200 billion yuan in its cloud infrastructure over three years.

Poshu Yeung, vice president of Tencent’s international business group, notes huge interest in shifting further into the cloud from businesses and for online education.

“We actually see more demands, requests coming in,” he said in an interview in April. “It’s a good wakening call for a lot of businesses.”

During the first quarter, China’s cloud infrastructure services market grew an impressive 67 percent from a year earlier to $3.9 billion, data from research firm Canalys shows.

Alibaba commanded 44.5 percent of the market while Tencent, which started its cloud business in 2013, four years after Alibaba, had just 14 percent. Huawei Technologies also had 14 percent.

“Although Tencent came to the space later than Alibaba, I believe the company is willing to endure a relatively long period of investment cycle for this business, hoping to catch up or one day becoming the No. 1 player in this field,” said Alex Liu, tech analyst at China Renaissance.

Tencent’s cloud division accounted for more than 4.5 percent of its annual revenue last year while Alibaba’s cloud computing division accounted for 8 percent of its overall revenue.

Tencent employees have told Reuters the company is working hard to become more adept in business-to-business sales where products are often designed from the ground up for one client, as well as in government relations.

 Those are areas where Alibaba excels while Tencent’s strength lies more with consumer-centric products and design.

“Tencent has great genes in business-to-consumer, but in business-to-business, we either didn’t have product managers or we just hired folks with a business-to-consumer background so it took a bit of time to convert their thinking,” said a second Tencent source in the company’s cloud business.

Tencent declined to comment on staff observations.

One area where Tencent has gained ground in recent years is government contracts — a relatively small part of the market in revenue terms but one that brings prestige and helps attract private-sector clients.

Underscoring its determination to win tenders, Tencent in 2017 offered to complete a Fujian province government information platform project for 0.01 yuan.

From 2016 to 2017, Alibaba scored 28 cloud-related contracts for government entities, state-owned enterprises, and academic institutions, while Tencent landed just seven, government procurement records show.

But in 2018, they secured 28 each before Alibaba took the lead again last year with 49 compared with Tencent’s 46.