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AI Weekly: Coronavirus prompts call to service for ML talent

On Thursday afternoon, the United States became the country with the greatest number of known COVID-19 cases in the world. With millions out of work and the spread of the virus taking its toll, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and in anguish without ever getting off the couch.

Inadequately supplied frontline healthcare workers are the heroes in the trenches of this war, but the world’s scientific community is also considering how it can respond and provide solutions. People with expertise in AI, data science, and tech tools are in demand right now as the world scrambles for ways to avert disaster. In last week’s newsletter, VentureBeat AI editor Seth Colaner characterized it as a kind of digital flotilla.

In Spain, four robots are automating up to 80,000 COVID-19 tests a day, and in the United States, AI is part of the search for a coronavirus vaccine, but there are calls to service away from the front lines, too. On Thursday, Microsoft, together with top AI universities in the country, launched the Digital Transformation Institute and issued a call for AI techniques to mitigate pandemic fallout, with up to $5.8 million in prizes.

Last weekend, we saw supercomputer companies and major cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud Platform join a consortium to ensure coronavirus researchers don’t encounter compute limitations. Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu opened up cloud services in China. And the Xprize launched the Pandemic Alliance this week to support researchers and provide them with data from launch partner Anthem.

The Aspen Tech Policy Hub, an accelerator that sits at the intersection of civic life and technology, issued a challenge for accelerator graduates to build COVID-19-related solutions. And we saw the formation of the U.S. Digital Response, which is the coming together of three former U.S. Deputy CTOs who are committed to help public health officials and government actors connect with skilled volunteers for projects such as modeling or mapping the spread of COVID-19. Volunteers called upon by U.S. Digital Response to rapidly build projects for the public good come from other major tech service initiatives like the U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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Some projects are being met with opposition. For example, surveillance companies are anxious to offer AI-enabled solutions to government agencies interested in tracking the movement of people with coronavirus or those who have come in contact with a person diagnosed with coronavirus. Governments around the world are increasing surveillance as a result of the coronavirus. Earlier this week, WHO executive director Dr. Michael Ryan said surveillance is part of the answer to resuming life after shutdowns end and shifting from a defensive to an offensive strategy to combat the coronavirus. He points to countries like South Korea and Singapore as models of what he called a “comprehensive public health toolkit.”

COVID-Net is an open source computer vision project that launched this week, designed to use x-rays and CT scans to diagnose COVID-19 in patients. But neither the American College of Radiology (ACR) nor the CDC recommend using such a method for diagnosing COVID-19. Even so, the ACR’s Data Science Institute put out a call to solicit AI tools for identifying COVID-19 in CT scans, so that guidance may change.

We’re already seeing the outpouring of human kindness and compassion alongside doctors scared to go home to their families. Like soldiers drafted to the front lines, in New York, the epicenter of confirmed cases in the U.S., NYU is asking medical school seniors to graduate early and start working now in local hospitals. The U.S. Army is also requesting retired medical professionals to again serve their country. In the U.K. this week, over 500,000 people responded to a National Health Service call for volunteers.

The saying you might’ve heard is true: The greatest generation fought World War II, and we’re being asked to save the world by binging on Netflix. Some can support a local business or make face masks, but a lot of people feel helpless right now because the best thing for them to do to support the “war effort” is to stay at home, and indeed people who follow the urgings of public health officials and stay home right now are saving lives.

But for people with data science, tech, or AI knowledge, it’s not as simple as sitting on the couch or social distancing. From calls for NLP experts to help medical researchers to the aforementioned list of initiatives underway this week, people with these skills can lend a hand. Tech is not the solution to all our problems, but people with knowledge of machine intelligence who lend a hand in this international crisis could save a lot of human lives.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers and AI editor Seth Colaner — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson

Senior AI Staff Writer