Near the end of the first week of January, news of a deadly flu outbreak in Wuhan, China started coming to mainstream media. The disease that started out from Wuhan has now spread to mainland China and to other parts of the world with confirmed cases in the United States and potential threats in the United Kingdom and other countries.
Among the first reporters was BlueDot, which started notifying its customers of an impending outbreak as early as December 31. The Canadian firm which specializes in automated infectious disease surveillance, used a system based on artificial intelligence that combs through news reports, animal and plant disease networks, and official proclamations and gave its clients warnings of danger zones like Wuhan ahead of the outbreak. With access to global airline ticketing data, the firm correctly predicted the spread of the virus from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo in the days following its initial appearance.
BlueDot used machine learning and natural language processing techniques to prepare its model that subsequently sifts through news reports in 65 languages, airline ticketing data, and animal disease networks. After the automated system completes its working, the results are analyzed by trained Epidemiologists who make sense of the reported data conclusions from a scientific standpoint. Eventually, a report is generated and is sent to BlueDot's clients.
The founder and CEO of BlueDot, Kamran Khan, explained his motivations for using an AI-based system at BlueDot for the purpose:
“We know that governments may not be relied upon to provide information in a timely fashion. We can pick up news of possible outbreaks, little murmurs or forums or blogs of indications of some kind of unusual events going on.”
To help contain the spread of the virus, China has restricted the travel of around 35 million people in 12 quarantine regions and is taking other measures as well. At the time of writing this article, the death toll from the novel coronavirus has reached around 80 in China. Far more have been affected, however, and the official count is as high as 2,744 confirmed cases across the country. In the United States, five confirmed cases have been reported. Some experts have claimed that across the world, as many as 100,000 people could potentially have already been affected by the outbreak.