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Quarantine, social distancing best tools to fight coronavirus: Toby Walsh

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Artificial Intelligence is being used across many levels in the fight against the coronavirus, but the best tools to tackle any pandemic are quarantine and social distancing, asserts one of the world’s leading AI experts Toby Walsh.

He says an AI epidemiologist was the first to identify the first signs of the pandemic, scanning millions of tweets and blog posts to pinpoint a new disease coming out of Wuhan back in December 2019.

“AI can be (and is being) used across many levels of the fight to beat the coronavirus. AI is also being used in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19,” says Walsh, Scientia Professor of AI at the University of New South Wales and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

“Technology will help. But old-fashioned tools will help win the war. The best tool we have is the oldest – the one we’ve used for 700 years against any pandemic, namely quarantine. In Venice in 1377, ships from plague-stricken countries were forced to wait off its port for 40 days to assure that no latent cases were aboard,” Walsh told PTI in an interview.

“The next best tool that will help us prevent the spread is social distancing. Technologies like AI will help on top of this. But it is these simple, blunt and old tools that will ultimately decide how many people die,” he says.

On the role of AI in the fight against this deadly virus, he says, “AI is being used in the hunt to search for existing drugs that can be repurposed to fight the disease. It is also being used to understand the biochemistry of the coronavirus. Besides, AI help is taken to diagnose those infected with COVID-19 by reading CT-scans for the distinctive patterns on people’s lungs.”

Walsh has recently come out with a book “2062: The World that AI Made” in which he explores the impact artificial intelligence will have on work, war, economics, politics, everyday life and even human death.

He started writing the book, published by Speaking Tiger, the day he finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Home Deus”.

“AI is a profound technology that will change the very fabric of our society. But we won’t become gods. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It is our mortality and our humanity that will become deeply important as the features that will distinguish us from the immortal and omnipotent machines that we will create,” he says.

When Walsh finished writing the book, his eight-year-old daughter asked him what it was about.

“I told her the book was about the world she will inherit. How will the world in 40 or 50 years be when machines are as smart if not smarter than us when machines can do almost all our jobs. Will these machines even be conscious? What will our society be like then? And then I did the maths, and in 2062, she will be exactly my age to the year,” he recalls.

“This book focuses on the year 2062. Most experts in AI believe that there’s a 50 percent chance we will have created machines that can think as well as us by 2062,” he says.

Artificial Intelligence, says Walsh, will change the world dramatically.

“We need, therefore, to think big about the changes we should make to society today if we are to ensure that the world of 2062 is the one we want,” he says.

“If we make the right choices, AI promises to make life better – not just for the few but for the many. It can let us all live healthier, wealthier and perhaps even happier lives,” he adds.

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