As the economy begins the slow process of re-opening, advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing are playing a key role not only in monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks, but how companies manage the unchartered landscape before them. Use of AI during the earliest days of the pandemic centered on tracking the spread of the disease around the world. Today, AI is playing a critical role in how pharmaceutical and biotech companies research and test treatments, and in the development of a vaccine. And now, as states begin to reopen, and businesses try to find the best path forward, these advanced technologies are enabling them to figure out how to do this safely and effectively. “Companies don’t have historical data to work from because they’ve never dealt with a crisis like this before,” said Katie Stein, chief strategy officer for Genpact, a global professional services firm that specializes in digital transformation. “AI and machine learning are helping organizations built predictive models so that they can forecast and move forward.” Using AI to track COVID-19 AI played an essential role in identifying the initial outbreak of COVID-19, and then acted as a digital early warning system for the rest of the world. BlueDot, a Toronto-based company that uses artificial intelligence to track infectious diseases, first alerted its clients—public health officials, airlines, and hospitals, among them—on December 31 about 27 unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. Less than two weeks later, the World Health Organization confirmed the discovery of a novel coronavirus, later named COVID-19, in Wuhan. Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and founder and CEO of BlueDot, says his company’s algorithms consolidate and analyze data from news and livestock reports, commercial flights, statements from health organizations, and anonymized location data from digital devices. Using AI and natural language processing, it takes all that data—too much for humans to parse through—and looks for patterns and correlations that would indicate the beginning of an outbreak. At the end of December, Dr. Khan says his team began seeing news articles about an unnamed pneumonia in Wuhan that had similarities to the SARS epidemic that had greatly impacted Toronto in 2003. Within seconds, BlueDot was able to analyze anonymized data from hundreds of millions of mobile devices around the world, as well as commercial flight data and ticket sales, to see where the infection could wind up next. “People are the vectors that are moving diseases around the planet so you need to see how populations travel,” he says. Using AI, BlueDot identified the places at greatest risk. Of the 20 top cities it named in a peer-reviewed article for the Journal of Travel Medicine submitted on January 8, 12 were among the first to report coronavirus cases, including Bangkok where the first case outside of Wuhan, was reported. Speeding up the Search for a Vaccine As pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms race to develop a treatment and ultimately a vaccine for COVID-19, AI is an integral part of the journey. And it’s not just businesses that are using it. In April, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Human Vaccines Project announced a joint venture that will use artificial intelligence models to accelerate vaccine development. The Human Immunomics Initiative (HII) will try to decode the underlying ways the human immune system fights disease, taking advantage of the strides being made in AI, genomics, systems biology, and computing. The insights will help develop AI-powered models that allow researchers to virtually test potential vaccines and predict which therapies might work best across different populations. This could speed up vaccine and drug development. Sarah Fortune, the chair of Harvard Chan’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, explains that successful vaccination requires four components—knowing the vaccine target, what kind of immune response you want, how to generate that response, and understanding responses in the people who you want to vaccinate. In a statement, she said, “We understand a lot about the first two elements and very little about the last two. But by addressing these critical knowledge gaps, we envision a day when there are modular blueprints for successful vaccines that speed the process and increase the likelihood of success.” Mapping a Path Forward Just as AI is helping find health solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, it is also enabling companies to figure out the most effective ways to move forward. As the nation was gearing up to handle the peak of the coronavirus, AI was being used by companies to figure out how to move medical supplies where they were most urgently needed. And it went well beyond medical supplies. “We have clients who were telling us that in 10 days they went through the amount of inventory that they normally would in two months,” says Stein at Genpact. “Now they need a way to understand what demand is going to be going forward and we used AI and predictive modeling to figure that out.” The result, she believes, is that AI will play a much bigger role in supply chain management than it ever has. “AI is gong to enable companies to shift products to where they’re needed at the time they’re needed most, and to tailor product lines so that they’re selling only the items that are most in demand,” she says. For instance, Genpact is working with a consumer products company that has seen demand for its products skyrocket by 40% during the pandemic. To keep inventory flowing, Genpact is using AI to help the company trim its offerings to the most essential items and then reconfigured its shipping process so that the goods went directly to retailers rather than a distribution center. When demand eases up, the company can shift back. There’s little doubt that the role of AI in fighting this pandemic—and futures ones—will only grow stronger. Its impact will be amplified—or restricted—not by the technology itself, but by how it’s implemented by humans. “There’s no question that we can move knowledge around the globe faster than any outbreak,” says Dr. Khan of BlueDot. “But all the AI and machine learning in the world won’t be able to train humans to change their behavior if they don’t want to.” The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.