We once roamed the halls and hurried off to classes with bulky backpacks, and now we reside within our rooms and lead monotonous lives. With many high school seniors missing out on staple activities such as football games and prom, and with many juniors struggling to take part in standardized testing and participate in extracurriculars, it’s no secret that our lives—much like the rest of the world—have been impacted in ways we never imagined.
Given the duration and complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than human minds have been necessary to develop clinical treatments, track, and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Consequently, the world has turned to artificial intelligence (AI) for help. As high schoolers interested in AI, we decided to research ways AI and technology have been utilized to help the world fight and move past the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that symptoms of COVID-19 can appear in an individual two to fourteen days after being in contact with the virus. The list of symptoms seems to keep running down the page, with fevers/chills, coughs, shortness of breath, and diarrhea, to name a few. With time and research, it was concluded that an individual can test positive for COVID-19 antibodies without ever showing signs such as high fevers and persistent coughs; individuals who do not exhibit those symptoms of COVID-19 but have the disease are categorized as asymptomatic. Those who are asymptomatic can spread the virus without knowing, infecting more and more people.
We were interested to find that researchers at MIT have found a way to differentiate healthy and asymptomatic individuals by detecting the differences in their coughs. Using forced-cough recordings, researchers developed and trained an artificial intelligence algorithm to detect differences between the coughs based on the vocal cord strength and lung respiratory performance. They discovered that although people who are asymptomatic do not display symptoms, their coughs are different from healthy patients, and these differences can be detected by artificial intelligence programs. The model was able to detect 98.5 percent of asymptomatic coughs accurately. New algorithms such as this one shine a light on AI's wide variety of uses and opens up the doors to new discoveries and treatments.
Although most of us are experiencing a pandemic for the first time, history has a way of repeating itself. With the Spanish Flu in 1918, the Asian Flu in 1957, the ongoing AIDS pandemic and epidemic since 1981, and the Ebola virus from 2014-16, the world has seen its fair share of diseases and pandemics, all of which have affected our way of living. People fighting earlier pandemics didn't have the benefit of AI to speed up research, or the development of treatment and control solutions, but for our generation, technology has been key to gaining control over the virus. Our lives have changed in unimaginable ways, and knowing that we may never get these few years of our lives back seems frightening in the moment. Shifting to the bigger picture helps us understand that technology’s role in this pandemic is helping things like vaccine development and patient diagnosis progress at a much faster rate.
While protecting healthcare workers, the most effective way for us to move past the pandemic is through a clinical vaccine. Creating vaccines often takes years or even decades. It’s no easy task developing a vaccine.
In contrast, the COVID-19 vaccine was developed in roughly less than a year with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine granted emergency use authorization by the FDA on December 11th, 2020. Seven days later, Moderna received the same FDA approval for their version of the COVID-19 vaccine, and others have followed.
Our research found that machine-learning systems powered by AI have played a vital role in developing our current vaccine solutions. For any virus, there are thousands of different aspects the immune system reacts with. Therefore, there are thousands of varying vaccine solutions. AI and machine-learning tools can predict which specific parts of a virus are more likely to evoke an immune response causing us to feel sick. In doing so, vaccine production is sped up as scientists can utilize these tools and focus on the few specific parts of the virus known to make us sick.
Without doubt, we are excited to receive our doses of the vaccine. Regardless of when we are permitted to do so, vaccines serve as long-term solutions. In the meantime, we found that contact tracing apps have become increasingly efficient with the help of machine learning. Algorithms can automate alerts and notifications of exposures to COVID and analyze the immense amount of data each phone receives at any given time. Such processes are traditionally quite labor-intensive and slow but these algorithms have accelerated the process, which is critical during a pandemic.
Companies such as Apple and Google have developed contact tracing apps that work through our phones’ Bluetooth to scan for other nearby phones with the app. When two phones connect, they switch identification codes, and your phone begins to record how long you spend near another person based on factors such as how far away your two devices are and how strong the signal received is. If you were to test positive for COVID, your local health department asks you if you would like to notify others you may have exposed. If you agree, your phone will send an anonymous notification to other devices that came within six feet of yours for longer than fifteen minutes. When notified of your exposure to COVID, the app will give you instructions on the next steps to take, including being tested and isolating for fourteen days.
From global response funds to the United Nations’ support of multilateralism, we are no longer just individual countries fighting this pandemic. Countries all over the globe are facing similar problems and hardships with lack of resources in hospitals and numbers of deaths increasing; despite this, social media and technology has filled a void, which now enables people to feel more informed of the pandemic and connected to their loved ones. In fact, this pandemic has introduced an “infodemic” that has brought together tech titans worldwide to better educate our society in understanding the pandemic and how it can be stopped. New trials and projects are being piloted so that new concepts can be taught to different countries; back in February of 2021 in Madhya Pradesh, India, drones were flown over the bustling city to release a chemical agent that was anticipated to slow down the virus. Other hospitals in Wuhan, China, and Kerala, India, are shifting to robot-driven care to minimize healthcare professionals' risk.
Witnessing the power and potential of technology to help address the current pandemic has made us more hopeful for the future. While we may not know the answer to questions such as if masks will need to be worn regularly throughout our lifetimes, or if we will always need to stand six feet behind strangers in the grocery store, or as teenagers if we will ever get to link arms and gossip with friends again, global crises of all kinds call for more innovation and collaboration worldwide. With technology by our sides, our generation has the power to continue to innovate, collaborate, and change our world for the better.
Anwesha Mishra and Sohie Pal are alumnae of the Museum’s Teen Internship and Teen Engagement Council programs. They collaborated through online Zoom meetings and shared Google docs to write this blog.
Coles, Terri. “Contact Tracing Apps Use ML to Curb COVID-19 Outbreaks.” ITPro Today, July 10, 2020. https://www.itprotoday.com/machine-learning/contact-tracing-apps-use-ml-curb-covid-19-outbreaks.
FDA. “FDA Takes Additional Action in Fight Against COVID-19 By Issuing Emergency Use Authorization for Second COVID-19 Vaccine.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA, December 18, 2020. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-takes-additional-action-fight-against-covid-19-issuing-emergency-use-authorization-second-covid.
FDA. “FDA Takes Key Action in Fight Against COVID-19 By Issuing Emergency Use Authorization for First COVID-19 Vaccine.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA News Release , December 11, 2020. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-takes-key-action-fight-against-covid-19-issuing-emergency-use-authorization-first-covid-19.
Ferguson, Cat. “Do Digital Contact Tracing Apps Work? Here's What You Need to Know.” MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, November 20, 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/11/20/1012325/do-digital-contact-tracing-apps-work-heres-what-you-need-to-know/.
MIT News Office, Jennifer Chu. “Artificial Intelligence Model Detects Asymptomatic Covid-19 Infections through Cellphone-Recorded Coughs.” MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT News Office , October 29, 2020. https://news.mit.edu/2020/covid-19-cough-cellphone-detection-1029.
Solis-Moreira, Jocelyn, and Yella Hewings-Martin. “COVID-19 Vaccine: How Was It Developed so Fast?” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, November 15, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-did-we-develop-a-covid-19-vaccine-so-quickly#Rigorous-guidelines-for-clinical-trials.
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