If we use it correctly, artificial intelligence could help us fight the next epidemic

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Credit: ABC

It was an AI that first saw it coming, or so the story goes. On December 30, an artificial-intelligence company called BlueDot, which uses machine learning to monitor outbreaks of infectious diseases around the world, alerted clients—including various governments, hospitals, and businesses—to an unusual bump in pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. It would be another nine days before the World Health Organization officially flagged what we’ve all come to know as Covid-19.

That AI could spot an outbreak on the other side of the world is pretty amazing, and early warnings save lives. But how much has AI really helped in tackling the current outbreak?

Related article:  'Automation is in a tailspin': How the pandemic has disrupted AI's ability to understand us

The hype outstrips the reality. In fact, the narrative that has appeared in many news reports and breathless press releases—that AI is a powerful new weapon against diseases—is only partly true and risks becoming counterproductive. For example, too much confidence in AI’s capabilities could lead to ill-informed decisions that funnel public money to unproven AI companies at the expense of proven interventions.

So here’s a reality check: AI will not save us from the coronavirus—certainly not this time. But there’s every chance it will play a bigger role in future epidemics—if we make some big changes.

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