How an AI System Sounded an Early Alarm About the Wuhan Virus

Time is of the essence in an epidemic, as governments and health experts scramble to identify it and draw up the right measures to contain the situation. And an AI-powered system promises to offer that vital edge when it comes to its ability to deliver early warnings of new outbreaks.

On this front, a Canadian health monitoring platform appears to have beaten the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in disseminating news about an outbreak that we now term the Wuhan virus.

AI-driven health monitoring

BlueDot is a Toronto startup whose AI-driven health monitoring platform first sent word of this outbreak to its customers on December 31, 2019, according to a report on Wired. This came ahead of the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention which got the word out on January 6, and the WHO which notified the public on January 9.

The BlueDot system uses natural-language processing and machine learning techniques to sift through vast volumes of online posts and news reports in 65 languages. Flight data from airlines and reports of animal disease outbreaks are similarly processed, though social media postings aren’t used due to its inherent unreliability.

The system isn’t completely reliant on AI systems, though. Once the automated data processing is done and conclusions are drawn, humans take over for further analyses. Epidemiologists on the team step in to check that conclusions make sense from a scientific standpoint before preparing the report that is sent to government, business, and public health clients.

Launched in 2014, the company secured USD7 billion financing in August last year and currently has a team of 40 employees.

Founder and CEO, Dr. Kamran Khan previously described how BlueDot works: “BlueDot is harnessing the power of big data, artificial intelligence, and digital technologies to spread knowledge faster than infectious diseases. Our products empower our clients with timely, contextualized insights that strengthen their resilience against dangerous infectious disease threats, whether originating from natural causes, accidents, or deliberate acts.”

Ultimately, what BlueDot has created shows how AI can be harnessed for good and underscores its ability to tackle repetitive, laborious tasks that humans would not be able to do.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/ RyanKing999