COVID-19 increased the use of AI. Here’s why it’s here to stay

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kerri Reynolds, SVP Crowdsourcing and HR, Appen


  • Due to the pandemic, organisations have invested in AI to expedite remote working, enhance the customer experience and decrease costs.
  • AI developments during the pandemic have benefited retail, education and healthcare in particular.
  • In the not-too-distant future it will be hard to imagine that AI and our daily lives were ever so far removed from each other.

From virtual learning, to video chats with our doctors, we’re are all currently negotiating the ways of a new normal that is likely here to stay.

Our needs for accuracy, speed and digital interaction have risen, especially in mission-critical domains, and have turned to our most advanced technologies to aid us during the pandemic.

While AI was already on a journey from the fringes to a core-value offering before the start of 2020, the pandemic hasn’t slowed its trajectory as might have been expected. Appen’s State of AI 2020 Report reflected that 41% of companies have, instead, accelerated their AI strategies during COVID-19.

Due to the pandemic, organisations have invested in automation through AI to expedite remote working, enhance the user and customer experience and decrease costs. In fact, three-quarters of organisations surveyed in the State of AI Report cite AI as critical to their success in 2020, and many are already benefiting from the results.

AI powering cross-industry changes

The need to social distance is driving the production of new technologies that can facilitate our safety. Even post-pandemic, experts are predicting that many of these changes to our daily lives are here to stay. Companies across all major industries have the incentive to invest in the type of AI that powers virtual interactions. While there have been an incredible amount of AI developments in 2020 here are a handful among them:

  • Retail: We have seen the rise of no-contact pick-up and delivery of meals, reservation systems to make appointments at your local retail store, and the development of more autonomous stores. Retail stores are using computerised models to map out their stores and track inventory. This responds to a key need given the rush to buy specific items at various stages of the pandemic.
  • Education: As many schools have had to establish online programs without much time for their consideration, advances in AI-powered smart-learning tech are in full sway. AI is proving able to produce digital content (for instance, study guides suitable for nursery-level all the way to secondary) that is indistinguishable from human-created mediums. Virtual tutors and learning software that incorporates dozens of different languages are no longer ideas of the future in the education space. Nonetheless, many teachers are just starting to supplement AI into their curriculums in small but meaningful ways. One school, for example, used AI to automate their roll-call process and has seen greater attendance and data accuracy since.
  • Healthcare: Social distancing has created the need for some degree of contact-free patient experience. Companies have launched contactless check-in options powered by AI for patients who need in-person visits. On the other hand, a growing number of patients are turning to fully virtual options and companies are responding in kind with enhancements in telehealth. For example, more healthcare organisations are leveraging chatbots to answer basic questions for patients, including scheduling appointments and triaging visits. It’s also important to note how AI is playing an especially critical role regarding COVID-19 itself, by helping doctors detect and diagnose the virus through the speedy analysis of MRI along with various other imaging systems.

TICO-19: one healthy variant than sprung from the virus

One of the most ground-breaking things we can do today, thanks to technological advancements around information availability and connectivity, is to make sure people learn more (and faster) about the pandemic than they would have done had this happened 100 years ago.

That’s why we think AI advancements that help keep people informed and safe during a global pandemic deserve particular highlight. One exciting case study involves Translators without Borders (TWB), an organisation committed to distributing essential information globally in a multitude of languages.

TWB partnered with technologists and language professionals from several academic and industry partners (Amazon, Appen, Carnegie Mellon University, Facebook, George Mason University, Google, Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft and Translated) to form the Translation Initiative for COVID-19 (TICO-19).

Together, they’ve prepared COVID-19 materials for dozens of the world’s languages to provide to professional translators and researchers training Machine Translation (MT) models. Their goal? To ensure information about the virus is accessible to people from all corners of the planet.

The project has developed translation benchmarks which include 30 documents containing nearly 70,000 words related to COVID-19 terminology. All documents were translated from English into each of the 38 languages, including those under-served by technology (Dari, Dinka, Pashto, Zulu among them). The content created is publicly accessible through TICO-19’s GitHub; a move that helps ensure future availability to machine learning researchers and professional translators. The project is currently in phase and has more developments up its sleeve.

AI beyond the pandemic

As we adjust to the changes brought by a global pandemic, we adapt to an increasingly virtual world. AI helps us greatly now by enabling safe social distancing and detecting COVID-19.

AI helps us now by enabling safe social distancing and detecting COVID-19, but also by making our lives easier. It’s the latter that will lead to more long-term changes in our interactions with technology, more investment in AI as the pandemic eases, and a future in which AI and our daily lives are forever intertwined.

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