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 launches its first unmanned mission to Mars

Updated 25 July 2020

China launches its first unmanned mission to Mars

  • Probe expected to reach Mars in February
  • China to attempt landing on surface of Mars, deploy rover

WENCHANG, China: China successfully launched an unmanned probe to Mars on Thursday in its first independent mission to another planet, in a display of its technological prowess and ambition to join an elite club of space-faring nations.
China’s largest carrier rocket, the Long March 5 Y-4, blasted off with the probe at 12:41 p.m. (0441 GMT) from Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan.
In 2020, Mars is at its closest to Earth, at a distance of about 55 million km (34 million miles), in a window of about a month that opens once every 26 months.
The probe is expected to reach Mars in February where it will try to land in Utopia Planitia, a plain in the northern hemisphere, and deploy a rover to explore for 90 days.
If successful, the Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven,” the name of a poem written two millennia ago, will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover in its inaugural mission.
Since 1960, half of all the 50-plus missions to Mars including flybys had failed, due to technical problems. Only a handful attempted to land on the planet.
Challenges multiply for those attempting a landing — from ensuring a precise deceleration of the spacecraft to navigating the planet’s sometimes violent atmosphere.
“The mission must necessarily be challenging, and not be following in the footsteps of others completely,” Liu Tongjie, mission spokesman, told Reuters after the launch in an interview.
“This is an exploration project, so there will be no 100% assurance of success. If the mission is unsuccessful, or if there are problems, we will continue to push ahead, re-establish the project, and re-commit.”
China previously made a Mars bid in 2011 with Russia, but the Russian spacecraft carrying the probe failed to exit the Earth’s orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.
Eight spacecraft — American, European and Indian — are currently either orbiting Mars or on its surface, with other missions underway or planned.
The United Arab Emirates launched a $200 million mission to Mars on Monday, an orbiter that will study the planet’s atmosphere.
The United States’ upcoming 2020 mission costs more than $2 billion.
Liu declined to give a cost estimate for China’s mission, but said expenses have been “very economical” when spread out over the six years since research and development began in 2014.

New Sino-US frictions?
The next US mission may be launched as soon as end-July. The probe will deploy a rover called Perseverance, the biggest, heaviest, most advanced vehicle sent to the Red Planet by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
NASA’s InSight is currently probing the interior of Mars on a plain called Elysium Planitia. Curiosity, a car-sized rover deployed by NASA, is studying soil and rocks in Gale Crater, searching for the building blocks of life.
Asked if Tianwen-1 would present new frictions with the United States, Liu told Reuters the Chinese mission is a scientific exploration project not to compete with anyone but cooperate with each other.
“From our point of view, Mars is large enough for multiple countries to explore and carry out missions,” Liu said in an interview, when asked if there was a chance the Chinese rover would meet with Curiosity and InSight.
China’s probe will carry 13 scientific instruments to observe the planet’s atmosphere and surface, searching for signs of water and ice.
“Scientists believe there was an ancient ocean in the southern Utopia Planitia. At a place where an ancient ocean and land meet, scientists hope to make a lot of discoveries,” Liu said.