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AI May Be Smarter, But Not In Flagging Disease Outbreaks

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China? In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they made up in finesse.
For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. Medical experts must still do the hard work of sifting through rumours to piece together the fuller picture.

The first public alert outside China about coronavirus came on December 30 from the automated Health-Map system at Boston Children’s Hospital. It sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in Wuhan. The system ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on a Chinese social media forum. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Early warning systems that report for signs of disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of AI that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of disease monitoring firm Metabiota.

Madhav said text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organisations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there’s almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data. “There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.- Times Of India  

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