Using AI responsibly to fight the coronavirus pandemic

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has left the world in turmoil. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has reached virtually every corner of the world, with the number of cases exceeding a million and the number of deaths more than 50,000 worldwide. It is a situation that will affect us all in one way or another.

With the imposition of lockdowns, limitations of movement, the closure of borders and other measures to contain the virus, the operating environment of law enforcement agencies and those security services tasked with protecting the public from harm has suddenly become ever more complex. They find themselves thrust into the middle of an unparalleled situation, playing a critical role in halting the spread of the virus and preserving public safety and social order in the process. In response to this growing crisis, many of these agencies and entities are turning to AI and related technologies for support in unique and innovative ways. Enhancing surveillance, monitoring and detection capabilities is high on the priority list.

For instance, early in the outbreak, Reuters reported a case in China wherein the authorities relied on facial recognition cameras to track a man from Hangzhou who had traveled in an affected area. Upon his return home, the local police were there to instruct him to self-quarantine or face repercussions. Police in China and Spain have also started to use technology to enforce quarantine, with drones being used to patrol and broadcast audio messages to the public, encouraging them to stay at home. People flying to Hong Kong airport receive monitoring bracelets that alert the authorities if they breach the quarantine by leaving their home.

In the United States, a surveillance company announced that its AI-enhanced thermal cameras can detect fevers, while in Thailand, border officers at airports are already piloting a biometric screening system using fever-detecting cameras.

Isolated cases or the new norm?

With the number of cases, deaths and countries on lockdown increasing at an alarming rate, we can assume that these will not be isolated examples of technological innovation in response to this global crisis. In the coming days, weeks and months of this outbreak, we will most likely see more and more AI use cases come to the fore.

While the application of AI can play an important role in seizing the reins in this crisis, and even safeguard officers and officials from infection, we must not forget that its use can raise very real and serious human rights concerns that can be damaging and undermine the trust placed in government by communities. Human rights, civil liberties and the fundamental principles of law may be exposed or damaged if we do not tread this path with great caution. There may be no turning back if Pandora’s box is opened.

In a public statement on March 19, the monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint statement on promoting and protecting access to and free flow of information during the pandemic, and specifically took note of the growing use of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. They acknowledged that there is a need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, but stressed that “it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected.”

This is not an easy task, but a necessary one. So what can we do?

Ways to responsibly use AI to fight the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Data anonymization: While some countries are tracking individual suspected patients and their contacts, Austria, Belgium, Italy and the U.K. are collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. This option still provides governments with the ability to track the movement of large groups, but minimizes the risk of infringing data privacy rights.
  2. Purpose limitation: Personal data that is collected and processed to track the spread of the coronavirus should not be reused for another purpose. National authorities should seek to ensure that the large amounts of personal and medical data are exclusively used for public health reasons. The is a concept already in force in Europe, within the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but it’s time for this to become a global principle for AI.
  3. Knowledge-sharing and open access data: António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has insisted that “global action and solidarity are crucial,” and that we will not win this fight alone. This is applicable on many levels, even for the use of AI by law enforcement and security services in the fight against COVID-19. These agencies and entities must collaborate with one another and with other key stakeholders in the community, including the public and civil society organizations. AI use case and data should be shared and transparency promoted.
  4. Time limitation:  Although the end of this pandemic seems rather far away at this point in time, it will come to an end. When it does, national authorities will need to scale back their newly acquired monitoring capabilities after this pandemic. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his recent article, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.” We must ensure that these exceptional capabilities are indeed scaled back and do not become the new norm.

Within the United Nations system, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) is working to advance approaches to AI such as these. It has established a specialized Centre for AI and Robotics in The Hague and is one of the few international actors dedicated to specifically looking at AI vis-à-vis crime prevention and control, criminal justice, rule of law and security. It assists national authorities, in particular law enforcement agencies, to understand the opportunities presented by these technologies and, at the same time, to navigate the potential pitfalls associated with these technologies.

Working closely with International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNICRI has set up a global platform for law enforcement, fostering discussion on AI, identifying practical use cases and defining principles for responsible use. Much work has been done through this forum, but it is still early days, and the path ahead is long.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated several innovative use cases, as well as the urgency for the governments to do their utmost to stop the spread of the virus, it is important to not let consideration of fundamental principles, rights and respect for the rule of law be set aside. The positive power and potential of AI is real. It can help those embroiled in fighting this battle to slow the spread of this debilitating disease. It can help save lives. But we must stay vigilant and commit to the safe, ethical and responsible use of AI.

It is essential that, even in times of great crisis, we remain conscience of the duality of AI and strive to advance AI for good.

FCC enacts $200M telehealth initiative to ease COVID-19 burden on hospitals

The FCC has developed and approved a $200 million program to fund telehealth services and devices for medical providers, just a week or so after the funding was announced. Hospitals and other health centers will be able to apply for up to $1 million to cover the cost of new devices, services and personnel.

The unprecedented $2 trillion CARES Act includes heavy spending on all kinds of things, from direct payments to out-of-work citizens to bailouts for airlines and other big businesses. Among the many, many funding items was a $200 million earmarked for the FCC with which it was instructed to improve and subsidize telehealth services around the country.

Telehealth comprises many services, from something as simple as making appointments online, to using internet-connected monitoring devices, to conducting an entire primary care visit via video chat. The latter is an incredibly important option for doctors and nurses who not only need to avoid direct contact with potentially sick patients if possible, but also need every spare minute they can muster.

“The toll this pandemic is taking on our healthcare system is clear. To the extent that connectivity solutions can provide immediate assistance with remote care and monitoring, we should use them. There is already evidence across the country that this works,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the order.

Unfortunately telehealth systems are by no means simple or easy to implement, given that they must not only meet highly stringent privacy requirements like HIPAA, but also be effortless to use for people who might not use video chat for any other purpose. Setting aside space, equipment, budget, and so on for telehealth operations is difficult and time-consuming in the best of times, let alone when care centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Even hospitals that provide some telehealth services are likely to find demand far outstripping supply right now.

The $200 million FCC program is aimed at mitigating this as simply and quickly as possible. “I’m hard-pressed these days to think of any better use case for the agency’s mission of advancing connectivity than telemedicine,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.

As the order, passed unanimously today, describes it:

The support provided through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program will help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Eligible” in this case means on the following list of types of organizations or combinations thereof:

  • Medical schools and teaching hospitals
  • Community health centers and migrant care centers
  • Local health agencies and departments
  • Community mental health centers
  • Not-for-profit hospitals
  • Rural health clinics
  • Skilled nursing facilities (e.g. long term care facilities)

Any given entity may be awarded up to $1 million in funding depending on its need and reach. Priority is being given to areas especially hard-hit by the virus and chronically underfunded places like clinics in poor neighborhoods that subsist on Medicare payments and the like.

There are a few restrictions as to what the funds can be used for — for instance, only internet-connected monitoring devices are covered, not ordinary “offline” ones that the patient must relay the results from via other services. But the general idea is to stay flexible and let the recipients of this money decide what to do with it.

Rosenworcel tempered her hopeful remarks with some practical feedback for the order, which was by necessity somewhat rushed.

“This is a well-intended effort, but it lacks clear performance metrics,” she said. “That means it will disburse funds without a system for measuring outcomes or a plan for what comes after this pilot program reaches its end. Moreover, it does not focus on a specific problem in healthcare.”

Better, of course, that the money is available now and accounted for later, since we are presently in the throes of the crisis.

A second $100 million program was also authorized, by which money taken from the FCC’s main budget takes a longer-term approach to engendering telehealth over the next two years. That program differs in some key ways (not covering connected devices, for one) and will play out in slower fashion but provide ongoing support.

The FCC has several ongoing efforts to “Keep Americans Connected,” as it puts it, from institutional programs like this one to extracting promises from broadband providers not to fine people for data overages or late payments. You can find a list of its work here.