“There are two ways to how AI can help us now and for the future: help us predict the number of infected people and help with treatment.”
We interviewed for a second time AI expert Gianluca Mauro, founder of the AI Academy, to talk about AI in relation to the ongoing pandemic crisis and on data privacy with the increase of applications created to track cases.
He recently published a book, a toolbox on artificial intelligence (AI) for all readers with any background, alongside AI Academy co-founder Nicolò Valigi called ‘Zero to AI’.
Quality data makes AI work best
To initially understand the role that AI had in this pandemic, or that it could have had, Gianluca told us the story of a Canadian company called Blue Dot which had observed an increasing trend in infected people already two weeks before China declared the emergency state. Blue Dot uses “a global early warning system [which] combines more than 100 datasets with proprietary algorithms to deliver critical insights on the spread of infectious diseases.”
Gianluca, speaking in relation to the aforementioned example and AI use, stated, “Data is useful and has to be good quality for AI results to work best.”
“Imagine if you had an application [like the one created by Blue Dot] during the plague,” states Gianluca, “that could tell you that the person you want to go have coffee with had been in touch with someone else who declared they are infected. I would pay gold for a similar app.”
Data sharing is (not) evil
Previous mishaps with companies such as Facebook, within the last few years, have led people to believe that data sharing is bad, declares Gianluca. Education about data sharing is essential he adds. “We are losing many opportunities to gain from this technology because we are so scared of it.”
Google and Apple are now working on contact tracing using the iPhone’s Bluetooth. An estimated 3 billion people will be able to opt-in to location tracking through Bluetooth on their smartphones for the purposes of combating the Covid-19 pandemic. They would receive alerts if they came into contact with someone who was tested positive for Covid-19.
“In the case of the collaboration between Google and Apple, Apple per se does not care to whom the phone belongs to. It just wants to know that phone with a specific ID number met another phone of a different ID that had the virus.” Gianluca also states that we should also trust companies like Apple and he understands that it is not easy. “How do you know truthfully how our data is used?”
Decisions should be made by ourselves as well. In fact, when Gianluca spoke of encryption of data he stated that from the consumer side — us — we can make decisions sometimes that facilitates data sharing without realizing it, like logging into other systems using Facebook.
Governments and apps
The Chinese government is known to not consider data privacy a necessity, as it was shown in their methods to trace its citizens at the beginning of this pandemic. “The Chinese government would trace and pin every person who declared they were infected and take action to make sure they would not move anywhere else,” Gianluca explains. “It is okay to geolocate people for their own safety, but what about when the pandemic is over? What will companies and governments do with all the data collected?” — he wonders.
In Italy, Bending Spoons proposed an app to allow for voluntary user-based tracing app. The proposed project was accepted by the Italian government, creating what is now the national tracing application called ‘Immuni’.
However, at the beginning, Bending Spoons, because it is a private company was not welcomed by the citizens. A counter-movement proposed open-source codes for better transparency. Bending Spoons is now also open-sourced. People, as developers, can suggest edits and propose changes to the coding of the app.
“The only argument that I make to this idea of open-source is the benefit of paying an in-house expert,” states Gianluca. “Generally those who provide feedback for open-source applications do so in their free time, maybe because they want to improve their CV or for passion. However, what happens, though, when there is a problem and we need an expert?” wonders Gianluca.
The upside of paying someone a decent salary is that then the employees would actually feel motivated to continue working.
The consultant should be, for example, a role that carries out the entire job. “Paying someone in-house would allow consultants such as myself to know that I am speaking their same language. It is important to have someone who understands the technicalities of the job that needs to be done.”
AI and Covid-19
“In the future, AI could be able to predict when and where the virus is going to explode again because it would spot anomalies in the data and tracing people to limit the spread,” says Gianluca. Many people have been downloading data from the internet about several factors to make predictions that are not accurate.
“You could monitor with a camera too and count how many [people] were actually wearing a mask or collect their body temperatures.” He then proceeds to speak of AI use and prediction in cases like with biology.
“A lot of research has been carried out with AI and screening billions of molecules for treatment for the virus. Alongside the right algorithm, it might not be necessary to test out treatments in animals or humans: AI could predict its effective results.”
Data is gasoline for AI
Sometimes AI is so good that it is creepy. Gianluca told us the story of Target which, based on changes in consumer behaviors like a decrease in tampon purchases, would advertise particular brands of pregnancy products to women. Due to this strategy, Target revealed the news of a pregnant woman to her father, because she hadn’t said anything. Target, to avoid repeating a similar accident, started adding random other products next to these well-planned ads; therefore, it now does not look too ‘perfect’.
Gianluca goes back on how important it is to make sure there is an expert. “I am a consultant,” he explains, “and one of my clients, Pampers, I admire their wish to expand and evolve by studying the work that AI opens.” But Gianluca explains how often having someone internal can help speak to consultants as himself. This supports not only the additional professional support that Giancarlo can bring, but it can help the conversation among professionals. “Companies, with their own professional CTO, know that they are getting the best product possible for their AI needs.”
To this point, we spoke to Giancarlo about the National Institute for Social Security’s website incident. At the beginning of the pandemic too many people were logging in their system and it crashed. “You can see from their website script that it has been made by an intern. But it is not their fault, interns need to be given direction.” states Gianluca.
AI can help us
“There are two ways,” explains Gianluca, “to how AI can help us now and for the future: help us predict the number of infected people and help with treatment.” He sees a world where data sharing is accepted and with the aim of making well-informed decisions.
The AI Academy is now offering an online course for all ages and backgrounds on AI. In July the advanced and additional course is coming out. Furthermore, ‘ZerotoAI’ is now online.
When it comes to new discoveries, like new technologies, society gets generally pretty scared. As we discussed with Gianluca, people are scared at their data and privacy ‘being taken away’ by AI, but we can make a decision on how our information is shared. We can choose the use of this data. We should trust that newer technologies to bring us forward to prevent and save us from further crisis.
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