Can AI Prevent the Next Pandemic?

December 12, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed close to seven million lives worldwide and left many survivors managing the sometimes-debilitating effects of long COVID. According to a June 2022 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40 percent of U.S. adults have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic’s 2020 onset, and 7.5 percent have experienced symptoms lasting three or more months.

COVID-19 has exacted a heavy toll that could have been even worse had not public health measures, such as masking and social distancing, been enacted and saved millions of lives. Researchers also estimate that highly effective vaccines created in record time with mRNA technology prevented the deaths of close to 20 million people in over 185 countries in their first year of deployment. 

Public health interventions supported by new technologies can efficiently mitigate deadly pandemics. This raises the question of whether other advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), can be used to help prevent future pandemics. If the answer is yes, what role can computer science and AI experts with advanced degrees, like the Online Master of Science in Computer Science offered by Tulane, play in averting the next pandemic?

Is AI the Right Tool for Fighting Pandemics?

AI can process large volumes of complex data with many variables at high speeds. It can also identify patterns and trends that would otherwise be undetectable. 

Researchers are actively seeking new applications of AI to solve business challenges. Notable examples include: 

  • Detecting fraudulent product reviews: Fraudulent online product reviews plague many online businesses, including e-commerce sites and companies selling services online. By propagating false (and, often, negative) information, these reviews can suppress sales and consumer confidence. Research has shown that AI can identify machine- and human-generated fake reviews more accurately than humans. 
  • Filtering email spam: The volume of spam emails is rising, sparking a need for more effective anti-spam filters. Researchers are investigating the use of deep learning and deep adversarial learning to identify spam emails.

Businesses and governments can also use AI-generated information to make better strategic decisions faster. A study by PwC found that 41 percent of AI business leaders already benefit from AI in their decision-making.

Another emerging trend is AI simulations, a technology that 96 percent of PwC’s survey respondents plan to use. AI simulations can provide detailed insights into current business performance. Better still, they can model different scenarios in parallel to help businesses predict future events and test responses without risk.

AI simulations can be similarly applied to pandemic control. As with business data, AI can sort through massive public health data sets to reveal patterns, identify challenges, and pinpoint possible solutions. Processing power and machine learning enable AI to find connections among data that humans could likely never detect.

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A Post-Pandemic Review of AI and COVID-19

By early 2021, spending on COVID-19 research topped $5 billion globally, generating a rich data trove. Early on, researchers suggested several applications for AI, including detecting and monitoring COVID cases, developing and testing drugs, and predicting infection trends. 

During the first COVID-19 wave in China, AI supported infection prevention and control. According to a study published in BMC Health Services Research, AI proved very effective in finding and diagnosing the disease. It also helped track and analyze how the epidemic was changing. The report notes that AI was especially useful in screening and detecting COVID-19 in cities with high cross-city mobility. AI also played an important role in production resumption in cities where reopening posed considerable public health risks.

During the COVID pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Emergency Use Authorization to some machine learning solutions. For example, in 2020, RADLogics’ AI-powered chest X-ray technology received FDA clearance to use an AI algorithm to analyze images for features suggesting pneumothorax (a collapsed lung), flagging scans for worklist prioritization and urgent review. The FDA also approved the Tiger Tech COVID Plus Monitor for emergency use in 2021. This device uses machine learning to identify biomarkers that may indicate SARS-CoV-2 infection and other conditions, such as sepsis or cancer, in asymptomatic individuals.

In addition, a review in Nature found six cases in which machine learning helped with pandemic readiness and response:

  • Forecasting infectious disease dynamics and effects of interventions.
  • Delivering surveillance and outbreak detection.
  • Enabling real-time monitoring of adherence to public health recommendations.
  • Providing real-time detection of influenza-like illness.
  • Offering triage and timely diagnosis of infections.
  • Furnishing the prognosis of illness and response to treatment.

The review found a few additional benefits of machine learning, such as identifying how a pandemic affects mental health or chronic conditions. One study reported on the short-term mental health impacts of COVID-19 through sentiment analysis of social media posts before and shortly after the initial outbreak in Wuhan. 

What AI Solutions Can We Expect for the Next Pandemic?

According to the Nature paper, machine learning was not widely used to inform clinical or public health decisions early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Most machine learning work occurred at the research or development stage. However, AI applications studied during the COVID-19 pandemic can have a significant impact on the identification and treatment of future pandemics. 

The FDA is adding more AI- and machine learning-enabled devices to its list of approved technologies. Between August 2022 and July 2023, the organization added 171 new devices, most in the field of radiology. In the future, new AI applications could be used to respond to pandemics. One example is the Linearfold AI algorithm, which can analyze virus genomes faster than traditional methods.

AI is no panacea, of course. Like all powerful technologies, it presents risks as well as benefits. Some pandemic-related applications of AI, such as facial recognition to track lockdown violations, raise ethical and privacy concerns. AI researchers should, therefore, take care to deliver ethical solutions to public health problems in the next pandemic.

MSCS Graduates Are on the Front Lines of AI Research

AI researchers are at the forefront of AI and machine learning development. They are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with technologies like neural networks and natural language processing

Recent advances include generative AI models like ChatGPT. ChatGPT uses massive amounts of data collected from public internet sites to generate text in response to prompts. Language models like those behind ChatGPT have also been used to improve antibody therapies against COVID-19, Ebola, and other viruses. AI lab DeepMind has trained an AI system to control and sculpt a superheated plasma inside a nuclear fusion reactor. 

AI researchers do meaningful work and their skills and knowledge command high salaries. If you are an early- to mid-career computer science professional, you may be interested in specializing in this realm. However, success in this field often requires advanced training and expertise, which you can acquire in a graduate-level program, such as Tulane’s Online MS in Computer Science.

Advance Your AI Career with the Tulane MSCS

Tulane University’s Online MSCS can teach you the skills needed to advance your computer science career. The curriculum includes a specialization in the AI and machine learning area and is well-suited to prepare you to participate in future research and development projects. You can also customize your coursework and area of emphasis in line with your career objectives. Whether you’re a technical professional looking to change industries or an experienced computer scientist interested in becoming an AI researcher, Tulane’s Online MS in Computer Science can help you achieve your goal. 

As a Tulane online student, you will have the flexibility to earn your degree while working. The program features a mix of virtual classes with professors and peers and self-paced, project-based assignments to accommodate busy professionals’ schedules.

If you’re ready to start your application or have questions about the program, connect with us today.

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