Coughing Up Evidence: - The Potential of AI to Trace and Prevent the Spread of the Coronavirus

Coughing Up Evidence: - The Potential of AI to Trace and Prevent the Spread of the Coronavirus
Tej Kohli is the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities around the world. Tej Kohli is also an impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle. Tej Kohli’s blog is #TejTalks and he is the author of Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook.Twitter @MrTejKohli.

Nineteen years ago, a robot trained to identify coughs could have been useful in detecting alleged deception on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Now that this potential technological innovation has become a reality, however, it is rightly aimed at saving thousands of lives.

With Covid-19 forecast to return in up to six waves after the current pandemic wanes, an AI-enabled app called Coughvid has been developed by Professor David Atienza and his team at the Embedded Systems Laboratory at Ecole Polytechnic Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

The idea is that users install the app on a phone or other web browser and “register” their cough via the in-device microphone. AI-enabled software will then determine the type of cough that a user has and the chance of it indicating infection with the Coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

The app is said to have a 70% accuracy rate, while 68% of people with the Coronavirus report a dry cough as one of their symptoms, according to the World Health Organization. It is not intended to take the place of a test for Covid-19 but could alleviate the current shortage of medical tests and provide some rough diagnostic indicators to concerned patients.

A Tussle to Trace

Coughvid is one of a number of AI-enabled apps that are aiming to help identify and prevent the spread of the pandemic. Apple and Google are working on tools that authorities could use to build apps that can undertake contact tracing, letting individuals know when they have been in contact with a person infected with the virus. Contact-tracing apps have already been launched in South Korea and Israel. In Britain, NHSX, the National Health Service’s innovation arm, is developing an app that uses Bluetooth technology to trace the spread of infection.

Meanwhile, a geo-locating app called C19-Tracker, launched by a not-for-profit venture formed by a group of 20 developers, claims to be the most comprehensive app built in the UK to tackle Covid-19 detection and spread. This app allows people with the Coronavirus to register themselves as infected on their mobile phones. When the phone comes within two meters of the phone of someone else with the app, an alert is sent to let the other party know of the contact and its associated risk. C19-Tracker also warns users not to enter locations where there is an increased risk of infection.

Disputes and Regulation

I have invested in many AI businesses and I truly believe that AI will grow exponentially and that its potential is more immense than analysts estimate. I have long championed the power of AI to transform health diagnostics, replacing human intervention in many healthcare applications and freeing up doctors to spend their time saving and improving lives.

But as is often the case with new technology, there are inevitably and already disputes about platforms and competition, with the C19 team complaining that Beta testing of their app is being blocked by guidelines that effectively only allow large organizations to create Covid-19 apps.

There are also concerns about privacy, over-sensitivity, and government control of the data. VST Enterprises, a British cybersecurity company, claims that the use of Bluetooth and other proximity-based apps could increase public anxiety around real-time tracking and GPS data-mapping, policing of data, and potential hacking attacks.

In the past, battles between rival technology formats have been won by faster adoption, better marketing, and smarter integration with consumers’ other devices. But this time around, with thousands of lives at stake, accuracy, safety, and efficacy must be the differentiators, with governments providing supervision and clear communication to help consumers make the right choices. There does not need to be a single winner. Technology firms must work together to trace and defeat this virus for the benefit of us all.