Artificial Intelligence Key to Fighting Pandemics

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

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 Artificial intelligence is proving to be an integral part of the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and may also aid in battling future pandemics, according to researchers from a high-profile AI commission.

“The early months of the pandemic response suggest that technology — some of it underpinned by artificial intelligence — offers powerful potential for detecting and containing the virus, driving biomedical innovation — including for vaccines and therapeutics — and improving response and recovery,” said a new white paper by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

The panel — which was established by the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act — was tasked by Congress to research ways to advance the development of AI for defense purposes. 

In the report titled, “The Role of AI Technology in Pandemic Response and Preparedness: Recommended Investments and Initiatives,” the authors called for a number of focused spending efforts and projects that could help the United States capitalize on AI capabilities during pandemics, as well as maintain military readiness.

Already, the Pentagon has a number of initiatives examining such tools. These include programs such as the AI-powered Joint Analytic Real-Time Virtual Information Sharing System, which can track the pandemic, the white paper said. 

The Defense Department’s Global Biosurveillance Portal is another program that is being leveraged for the COVID-19 response.

“However, reporting of the United States military’s own cases is primarily done through email forms and collected and assessed at the level of individual installation, rather than systematically across the force,” the white paper said. “This prevents DoD from having a full real-time assessment of force readiness. DoD and the services should examine how best to leverage AI-enabled platforms for managing force readiness and to ensure development of agile and persistent capabilities.”

The report pointed to the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center’s Project Salus effort as an example of a program that is being used to help with the pandemic.

The former leader of the center, Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, said the program is focused on COVID-19 modeling, supply chain risk analysis and predictive analytics.

A number of vendors both big and small are working on the project, he said during an online event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Shanahan delivered the remarks shortly before departing the JAIC. He is retiring from the Air Force in August.

The main beneficiary of the effort is U.S. Northern Command and various state National Guard forces, Shanahan said. It is intended to help them make future resource allocations as they battle COVID-19. The goal is to “give them a sufficiently high probability determinations that allow [them] to make some of those decisions in advance.”

The center has built more than 40 models that are in different stages of development, Shanahan said.

However, the AI commission’s white paper noted that the biggest hurdles for Project Salus were not developing algorithms but navigating the policy landscape and legal processes that govern federal agencies and departments to support interagency, state, local or tribal partners during federal emergencies and disasters.

“Critical time was lost due to these complexities, during which the data and predictive analytics could have provided critical support,” the white paper said. “Preemptive software capabilities play an important role in preventing much larger and more costly DoD interventions in terms of both lives and dollars, but only if they can be safely and quickly delivered to or deployed by those operational components that need them most.”

Meanwhile, work being done by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency could help create the infrastructure and protocols for collaboration in drug discovery and mirror efforts at the National Institutes of Health, the study said.

“Sharing experimental data in real time lays the foundation for AI-enabled research on vaccines and therapeutics,” it said. “Efforts like DARPA’s Synergistic Discovery and Design program can connect laboratories through shared infrastructure and standard protocols to enable data sharing at the point of experimentation.”

The white paper also called for the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium to become permanent. The consortium — which was launched in March — is a public-private effort being spearheaded by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of Energy and numerous industry partners.

Since its inception, the organization has grown to include 40 partners and supported 66 projects, many of which leverage AI, according to the white paper. That includes efforts focusing on molecular structure prediction for potential inhibitors, gene sequencing to assess risk of morbidity and data-driven strategies for allocation of scarce resources.

The Energy Department’s 17 national laboratories house the top supercomputers in the world, including the No. 1 supercomputer called Summit at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and the No. 2 supercomputer named Sierra, at Lawrence Livermore in California, said Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at the Energy Department.

“Supercomputing resources have already been ramping up and there’s already been a significant amount of scientific advancement on coronavirus … research that we’re going to be building off of with this big public-private partnership,” he said during a press call when the initiative launched.

The authors said a permanent consortium would create a standing capability to apply AI to pandemic-related research.

Topics: Information Technology

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