AI Talk: Pandemic effect

November 20th, 2020 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

As the number of cases of COVID-19 surge, it is easy to get lost in the negative aspects of the pandemic. This week, I am focusing on three stories that showcase positive impacts that the pandemic has had on our lives.

Virtual Conferences

This week marks the anniversary of my fourth year publishing weekly blogs! This anniversary always falls near the annual conference hosted by the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). Nearly all conferences have become virtual this year (the pandemic effect). I rarely attend more than one or two in any given year, but this year, I managed to peek into half a dozen or more NLP, AI and health care related conferences. This week, there are two simultaneous conferences I am struggling to pay attention to! Most have dropped the registration prices and it has become more economically feasible to attend these virtual events. They offer excellent technical talks, workshop discussions, detailed tutorials on all kinds of topics – an embarrassment of riches for those interested in learning. Also, you can attend the talks live or easily sample recorded talks later, skip around within talks or play them at twice the speed.

Imagine doing any of that at a real conference! At the massive HIMSS conference a few years ago, I remember clocking 10 miles wandering around the exhibit and conference floors. Aside from relaxing my tired feet, it is also a good thing from the standpoint of the democratization of knowledge. Knowledge is more accessible, to more people, in timelier a fashion. This leads to acceleration of innovation. Even after life returns to a new normal, conferences are likely to become hybrids—definitely a good outcome. After writing the above, I was surprised to see an article echoing similar sentiments!

Vaccine development

The big news of the week is the reported 90+ percent efficacy rate of two vaccines from Pfizer, along with BioNTech, and Moderna. Both vaccines have one thing in common: reliance on gene-technology, particularly, messenger RNA (mRNA).

Vaccine development is a slow process, typically taking about a decade. Gene-based vaccine development has been in progress for quite some time, but there has been no deployment of such vaccines. However, BioNTech and Moderna have developed a good understanding of the science behind such approaches. When Covid-19 appeared on the horizon early in January, both companies jumped to apply what they have learned to develop a vaccine for this new threat. Within a few short weeks they had prototype vaccines and started field trials! After Phase 1, 2 and 3 of clinical trials, we are now poised to have real effective vaccines. This process, which usually takes a decade, has been reduced to less than a year. This is remarkable! How we fight pandemics has changed forever. In addition, scientists can apply this approach to cancer and other diseases.

Telehealth

The ability to use video links to converse with someone has been around for over five decades! AT&T used to have a system called Picturephone Meeting Service. Early systems were super expensive and impractical , with a price tag as high as half-a-million dollars for setting up one end of a conference call! I know, I worked on one as a young engineer with AT&T Bell Labs. Fast forward to now, and everyone is using Zoom, Facetime or Whatsapp for videocalls.

Where this technology has really made a significant impact for the better is in health care. The number of telehealth visits have skyrocketed because of this pandemic and the resulting safety concerns. Questions of whether the patients or physicians would use or accept the technology were summarily put to rest. The stocks of companies supporting these modalities have also skyrocketed. CMS has eased the regulations, hopefully permanently, by allowing televisits to be treated as regular visits with your physician. There is an acceleration of technology that supports these visits – like remote monitoring and evaluation of patients. All of these advances are a result of the pandemic effect.

I am always looking for feedback and if you would like me to cover a story, please let me know. “See something, say something!” Leave me a comment below or ask a question on my blogger profile page.

V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.