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The Ethics of Using AI to Predict the Spread of the Coronavirus

Data Analytics Provides the Answer to Slowing the Spread and Treatment

Artificial intelligence (AI) systems can gather huge amounts of data, analyze it, and make predictions. AI is an indispensable tool for data analysis and treatment during the coronavirus. Given its potential widespread use in health-care-decision-making, AI raises ethical concerns about how this data is gathered and used. Data privacy

AI searches for patterns in data collected from literally thousands of sources and, using machine language, develops algorithms to predict certain results. Researchers can write simple code and start looking for relationships. Researchers can overlay their own proprietary data to assist in something like drug discovery.

We can imagine the many ways AI and data analytics can help researchers and scientists assess whether individuals have been exposed to coronavirus. The speed with which data can be collected allows for more rapid treatment than otherwise. AI can improve diagnostic time, reduce the length of treatment, and contain the spread through contact tracing.

One truth about AI is the more data you collect, the more accurate the results may be. Given that AI searches out information in order to develop models of behavior, the data inputted should be specifically designed for the purpose of gathering the data. This is easier said than done as many labs do not have sufficiently-trained personnel to do the testing. Moreover, there is a relative shortage of clinical expertise required to interpret diagnostic results due to the large volume of cases.

Looking at the treatment protocols for COVID-19, AI can predict which patients will become critically ill. This helps to get them into intensive care sooner. AI also can reduce the time of treatment once a patient is identified, if it can identify those affected more quickly and apply therapeutics such as Remdesivir to shorten the stay in the hospital. Those with lower risk can be transferred to another health facility or field hospital.

There are many models that try to predict the number of infected people, number of deaths, and recoveries. These vary depending on the variables used to develop the model —i.e., age, past heart problems, diabetes, over 65, etc.

A model developed by MIT leverages coronavirus data to determine effectiveness of quarantine measures and predicts the spread of the virus. This model, like most others, has been adjusted many times based on data gathered about how well social distancing is working.

Contact tracing is easier said than done. How can researchers know which individuals came in contact with an infected person? Asking questions helps but is not foolproof. Ideally, researchers would have access to our smart phones and can do contact tracing based on our social media activity. But, doing so violates privacy laws.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other privacy laws prevent telecommunication companies from “sniffing” a goldmine of personal and social data unless a national concern and state of health and emergency requires it. Are we there yet?

From an ethical perspective, AI should be used to help people to lead longer, more flourishing, and more fulfilling lives. I addressed these issues in my recent book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. Book

A recent survey by Deloitte Insights evaluates the potential AI risks of top concerns to companies. The results show that over 50 percent of respondents are concerned about the cybersecurity vulnerabilities of AI. Others are concerned about responsible ethics and decision-making as follows:

  • Making the wrong strategic decisions based on AI (43%).
  • Legal responsibility for decisions/actions made by AI systems (39%).
  • Regulatory noncompliance risk (37%).
  • Erosion of customer trust from AI failures (33%).
  • Ethical risks of AI (32%).

There is a real concern that the coronavirus will be with us for a long time. Talk about a second wave, reoccurrence of the virus in the fall, and new clusters because of lack social distancing may create an environment where until and unless a vaccine is developed, the return to a “normal way of life” may be many months in the future.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 12, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: