It has been said that the best way to predict the future is to study the past. In this sense, it is by looking back to 1889, 1918 and 1920, when we saw some of the world’s worst pandemics that we can better understand the present.
Take 1918, for example. The Great Influenza provides a reasonable upper bound in terms of mortality and economic effects as it represents a plausible worst-case scenario for disease outbreaks with a global reach like COVID-19:
Applying that death rate to the current world population (about 7.5 billion) generates staggering mortality numbers: 150 million worldwide deaths and 6.5 million US deaths. However, these numbers likely represent the worst-case scenario today, particularly because health procedures are more advanced than in 1918–20, although other factors like greater international travel work in the opposite direction.
When epidemiological differences, advances in public health, and mitigating policies are considered, it is said unlikely that COVID-19 will reach anything close to the Great Influenza Pandemic. However, the large potential losses in lives and economic activity are still a living threat.
In our current reality, we need to consider another important factor. Technology.
This time, we have experienced a unique approach in combating a virus through the use of technology, right from the beginning.
An AI company, BlueDot, warned us of the threat even several days before any public warnings were made and was able to correctly predict how the virus would spread.
This time, we were able to count on more monitoring, thanks to AI solutions specifically created to target this virus. Infervision, for example, is specially tailored for front-line use to help clinicians detect and monitor the disease efficiently and effectively.
Researchers at the University of Virginia are working to develop an AI platform that could help policymakers calibrate virus response.
In China, we had drones working in various manners, from delivering food and medical supplies to monitoring the lockdown of the community. Robots were used to treat patients and disinfect surfaces. Most impressively, let’s not forget, China was able to build two hospitals in just over a week. What we saw there was that China’s investments in technology were being paid off during this challenging time.
Controversially, some deployed technologies, such as face recognition and temperature tracking, also raised concerns about privacy. Perhaps one could argue that this is necessary during a pandemic.
Although the threat of another pandemic will stay with us, we can rest assured that next time around we will be even more prepared. We are not sure where the next virus will come from or how deadly the next pandemic might be. What we do know is that artificial intelligence is improving at a high speed every year, and if used correctly, can become a strong force for good.
Next time, we are likely to detect the virus before it even spreads. Algorithms might be able to detect a virus within our bodies, and you might even be told by your home virtual concierge to schedule a health check as it can detect that something isn’t quite right even before you develop any symptoms. We will be able to place robots in homes of isolated people to care for a family member when we are unable.
Next time, we might not need to convert to panic-shopping. Artificial intelligence will ensure that the number of essential items (yes, including toilet paper!) has already been calculated and shipped to our homes for the required isolation period. Our fridge would also already have been stocked by following our preferences. Your preferred outdoor activities would already have been recreated for indoor practice even before boredom kicked in.
Next time, hospitals shall also be more prepared. Most patients will be able to be treated by the comfort of their homes. We might even have a social robot taking care of them. These robots would be able to coordinate medication without compromising on privacy. Patients’ mental state and vital signs would continually be monitored while they are being confined to their homes. People would be relieved to not be stuck in a hospital, and able to stay home near their loved ones. Hospitals would work much more efficiently by only attending to extreme cases. This would protect the community and hospital staff from hospital-acquired virus spread and save a lot of money in the process. Patients will also be able to receive personalised treatment, AI would be able to predict the patients more vulnerable to the virus and warn them for isolation much earlier.
AI is also likely to alleviate the current struggles of the pharmaceutical industry, more specifically with regards to the development of vaccines in light of the appearance of a new virus.
When it comes to detecting and managing future outbreaks, AI might be able to design a whole new future for us. In truth, it’s capacity to process vast amounts of data within seconds and warn us when things go undetected makes it a firewall against future pandemics.
Moving to a nearer future now, one after the Covid-19 passes, we can probably predict a pandemic-driven recession. Unfortunately, we might see a society with a reduced number of elderly people, likely bankruptcy and unemployment on the rise. But it’s not all bad news. We shall finally see the rise of telemedicine. More investments in the healthcare industry, particularly within AI startups developing solutions in this area. Just this month, an AI company, Nanox, working to diagnose infections and help prevent epidemic outbreaks, announced a $26 million strategic investment. We will also see more attention to vaccine manufacturing technologies.
Perhaps, one good lesson after the Great Influenza is that major scientific breakthroughs can arise from dark periods. In that case, one scientist’s search for answers led him into a path of research that lasted for almost 30 years. In the end, Oswald Avery who started his search looking for a cure for pneumonia ended up opening the field of molecular biology. His findings that DNA carried genetic information, that genes lay within DNA, were set to change the future of science.
So while the existing threat of another outbreak is unlikely to disappear, in search of answers for Covid-19, we might be encouraged to explore different territories. This might be another opportunity to plug in the roots to make technology work for us, and not against us.
While there is currently much uncertainty about the future, we can hold on to the certainty that technologies such as artificial intelligence will have become critical in helping societies effectively deal with such challenges.
As always, we are left with the final question, how prepared are we for a new pandemic?