COVID-19 and Selected Artificial Intelligence Research and Applications

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Revised on 06 October 2021, 8:20 a.m.
Any substantive changes in this HillNote that have been made since the preceding issue are indicated in bold print.

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Given their capacity to tackle problems by combing vast stores of data using considerable computational power, Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications are valuable tools in the fight against COVID-19.

The term “artificial intelligence” refers to replicating human cognitive and predictive abilities by artificial means. A key type of AI is machine learning, which is “the ability of computers to identify patterns, learn from data, and make inferences or decisions, without having been explicitly programmed to do so.” This can lead to innovative ways to address problems that would otherwise be out of reach.

The expansion of AI applications in addressing the pandemic underscores the need to ensure that this technology is used properly. It raises several questions, namely:

  • Will AI be used ethically?
  • How will personal privacy be protected?
  • How will AI be governed?
  • Will its benefits be shared equally across society?
  • Will AI applications marginalize underrepresented groups?

Government of Canada Initiatives

The federal government supports AI research in addressing the pandemic through its COVID-related research funding initiatives, where all researchers – including those using AI applications – compete for funding.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) implemented COVID-19 research funding platforms with accelerated approval processes. These included the NSERC Alliance COVID grants and the College and Community Innovation Program – Applied Research Rapid Response to COVID-19.

Through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the federal government funded many AI initiatives that aimed to provide improved medical services during the pandemic.

The federal government also provided targeted funding for AI research through the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), such as a “targeted call for AI and COVID-19 interdisciplinary research collaborations to spark innovative, high-risk/high-reward ideas and projects.” After initial assessments, the initiative selected various projects.

Additionally, in collaboration with various Canadian AI organizations, CIFAR established the AI Against COVID-19 Canada taskforce with the objective of mapping and coordinating Canadian AI projects that can help end the COVID-19 pandemic and limit its societal impact. Scale AI, the AI supercluster funded by the Canadian and Quebec governments, is funding AI initiatives related to the pandemic.

COVID-19 Artificial Intelligence Research and Applications

Canada has numerous AI research initiatives and applications that are being used to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The sources of data used in these projects vary: some research uses scientific data while other projects use publicly available data from news sites, public agencies and other Internet sources. Following is a sampling of the research:

Medical / Pharmaceutical Research

  • A University of British Columbia project leveraged AI to study a commercial 1.3-billion medicinal compound library in a matter of one week, instead of the three years it would have taken with previous computer systems. This enabled researchers to identify 1,000 compounds that could become antivirals for COVID-19.
  • MILA supports various projects, such as using AI to discover COVID-19 antivirals, and to develop a model to better predict immune response to the virus.

Medical Services

  • A University of Ottawa project is working on an AI-based decision support system to help with COVID-19 mobile assessments and to determine optimal supply services during the pandemic.
  • The Vector Institute is working on many initiatives to track the COVID-19 virus as well as to improve the patient diagnostic process involving chest x-rays.
  • Amii is contributing to three main initiatives, namely the Roche Data Science Coalition (which addresses various issues related to patient support), capacity issues, and research enhancement in hospitals.

Public Health – General

  • CIHR funded a project involving McGill University, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the World Health Organization that aims to leverage AI methods to analyze “news on the internet to understand how communities and public health agencies around the world are responding to the coronavirus epidemic.”
  • Toronto start-up BlueDot uses AI to search the Internet to determine and track outbreaks of infectious diseases by analyzing data from public health agencies, combing through traveller information, and scanning 100,000 news articles a day. BlueDot was one of the first organizations to identify the COVID-19 outbreak.

Infrastructure / Economy

  • A Scale AI-funded AI-based solution called CargO₂ai optimizes the identification and prioritization of critical cargo arriving by container at the Port of Montreal to ensure the rapid distribution of essential goods.
  • A researcher from Lakehead University received funding from NSERC to develop an AI-based system to keep infrastructure safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Deloitte developed an AI monitor to find non-traditional signals of economic recovery, such as urban traffic volumes. Deloitte uses algorithms to scan social and traditional media to find trends in sentiment related to COVID-19, which can help decision-makers better understand how Canadians feel about what is happening around them and assist in implementing more tailored policies and business practices.

During a crisis, efforts to develop and deploy technological solutions become heightened; the current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Compared to past crises, researchers have access to massive datasets and the substantial computing power of AI technology which can be applied to multiple areas to address the wide-ranging impacts and challenges of the pandemic. Ultimately, the goal is to find new solutions to address the current crisis and to help Canadians prepare more adequately for future health emergencies.

Additional Resources

Using artificial intelligence to help combat COVID-19, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 23 April 2020.

Understanding Artificial Intelligence – Canadian Perspectives, Library of Parliament, 20 June 2018.

Artificial Intelligence: Current Situation, Risks and Outlook, Library of Parliament, 8 March 2019.

Authors: Dillan Theckedath and Sarah Lemelin-Bellerose, Library of Parliament

Categories: COVID-19, Health and safety, Science and technology

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