Tech Innovations Can Help Fight COVID—If We Do Our Part

Human frailties can stand in the way of real progress.

Posted Mar 04, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

  • An AI-powered app can help detect asymptomatic COVID-19 cases based on the sound of a patient’s cough.
  • One algorithm was 68 percent more accurate than radiologists at diagnosing COVID.
  • Predictive technology can give instant updates about a patient’s condition during isolation.
  • We need to take full advantage of COVID-fighting breakthroughs. But technology is useless without a partnership with the humans it's designed to help.
CKA on Shutterstock
Source: CKA on Shutterstock

As the deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s clear that this virus will be here to some degree for many years even after a majority of us are vaccinated. Throughout this dark period, artificial intelligence (AI) has played an important role in helping the medical community battle the health crisis, but technology can only do so much.

Humans have frailties—our fears, emotional vulnerabilities, and unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good—that can stand in the way of real progress.

MIT Sloan School of Management
Zoran Latinovic, Ph.D., is a Visiting Postdoctoral Scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management, Management Science
Source: MIT Sloan School of Management

Of course, technology is not innocent. The tech industry has proven itself as a poor steward of our data and privacy, and years of surveillance and security scandals have given us myriad reasons to distrust it. But at a time when the world faces multiple overlapping crises—including a rapidly spreading virus, pandemic-induced global economic insecurity, and widespread civil unrest—humans are limiting technology’s capacity to address our most critical challenges. 

The COVID-19 emergency provides vivid illustrations of the problem. Since the crisis began, scientists have invented many valuable tools and technologies to diagnose, track, and treat COVID; but these innovations are useless without a partnership with the humans they’re designed to help. Some examples:

  • A team of researchers from MIT’s Audio-ID Laboratory has created an AI-powered app that allows the detection of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 based on the sound of a patient’s cough. (Asymptomatic patients pose a significant obstacle to efforts to identify and isolate infected people: They are often unaware that they can be spreading a potentially deadly virus.) People submit recordings of their cough through the app and are given an instant diagnosis. But for an app like this to succeed, it must overcome people’s reluctance to have their health data tracked and traced. Many are hesitant. What’s more, the app’s efficacy assumes that once asymptomatic people learn their diagnosis, they’ll quarantine to reduce the spread. Not everyone is wired that way, though. Individualism is a powerful force in American culture.
  • A group of American and Chinese scientists has devised an alternative to the RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) COVID-19 diagnostic test, which due to its long processing times and prevalence of false-negative results, presents a massive public health challenge. In their study in Nature, the researchers describe an AI algorithm that integrates chest computer tomography (CT) scans with a patient’s travel and exposure history, clinical symptoms, and lab tests to promptly diagnose the disease. According to their results, the algorithm was 68 percent more accurate than radiologists at diagnosing COVID. However, some patients have erroneous and incomplete recollections of their travel and exposure history. Furthermore, some patients may neglect to mention comorbidities—that they smoke, for instance—because it’s not socially desirable. The patient’s omission of these material facts could adversely affect the accuracy of the diagnosis.
  • The London-based home healthcare provider, Cera Care, in collaboration with IBM Watson, uses AI-powered predictive technology to give instant updates about a patient’s condition when they are in isolation. The tool, which is digitally connected to 24/7 medical staff, analyzes changes in a patient's health and provides communication between the caregiver and the patient’s loved ones. This has the potential to be particularly useful with older patients, where even small changes can lead to rapid deterioration in a short time. But the technology only works if people know how to use it and want to use it. The tool requires familiarity and comfort with technology, which is not a given—especially with an older population. It also relies on a family’s willingness to relinquish privacy, which many might resist.
MIT Sloan School of Management
Sharmila C. Chatterjee, PhD., is a Sr. Lecturer in Marketing and the Academic Head for the Enterprise Management Track
Source: MIT Sloan School of Management

To meet and conquer the pandemic’s threat to our lives and livelihoods, we cannot let our skepticism, self-interest, and complacency get in the way. We need to take full advantage of the promise of COVID-fighting technological breakthroughs.

First and foremost, the technology industry must work to rebuild our confidence and trust. Tech companies need to demonstrate humility and show that they take seriously the issue of personal privacy. They need to make investments in infrastructure to safeguard people’s data and give people more control over how they share and use their sensitive information. Tech leaders must also work in concert with government and consumer watchdog groups to create public health technologies with robust data protection.

Beyond privacy and security concerns, the industry must strive to create more human-centered technologies and services. Product teams must consider human nature and human fallibility in their design processes. They need to innovate with an eye toward people’s natural strengths, but also their weaknesses and limitations. Their business models must take into account the best interests of humanity.

Finally, we need to do all we can individually and collectively to contain and prevent the spread of this virus. This includes adhering to CDC guidelines, such as masking and social distancing, as well as making an effort to use available technologies designed to keep us safe and healthy.

When it comes to fighting COVID, we need every tool in our toolkit. We can’t do it without technology, and technology can’t do it without us.

Zoran Latinovic, Ph.D., is a Visiting Postdoctoral Scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management, Management Science.

Sharmila C. Chatterjee is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing and the Academic Head for the Enterprise Management Track at the school.