Movie villain to real-life hero: AI poised to become humankind’s most powerful tool

(BPT) - The race for a COVID-19 vaccine may have a surprising beneficiary.

Artificial intelligence, the sometimes maligned and misunderstood villainous technology behind Hollywood blockbusters from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “The Terminator” could emerge as a hero of epic proportions. Successfully taking on the COVID-19 virus by aiding vaccine development and management of clinical trials, researchers say, is only the beginning of what this powerful tool can achieve. Today, the pandemic; tomorrow, global warming and other looming humanitarian challenges of our time — alongside new, transformational ways of doing business, which will speed innovation, improve financial performance and boost job satisfaction for workers.

AI is helping people answer what had been unanswerable questions, too complex for human brains and powerful computers to handle. One of the powerful lessons researchers say we are learning in the fight against COVID-19 is the power and value of data. Notably, the role data plays in predictive analytics generated through AI. For COVID-19, some healthcare professionals and researchers relied on genetic algorithms to evaluate, predict and model the virus’ behavior to help control its impact. That approach — using AI to see ahead — has enormous potential and is why predictive analytics is the subject of so much groundbreaking work in the field of AI.

Researchers at digital technology innovator Cognizant are experts on next-generation AI and data science. Among their ongoing initiatives is development of a powerful tool, “Evolutionary AI,” which can literally help to see the future by quickly analyzing enormous amounts of data and mapping the anticipated trajectory of selected trends. Evolutionary AI goes a step further than analysis, answering immeasurably complex problems — then prescribing solutions. Think of the benefits for a research oncologist who can now evaluate patient diagnoses, test results, demographics and individual risk factors across a mind-boggling array of data points to prescribe the best treatment. Or a greenhouse farmer who can now analyze seeds, soil, temperature, humidity and light requirements to yield optimal growth. The ramifications of that kind of application could be enormous, leading to more efficient farming and more food. Not just prediction, which can be so valuable on its own, but prediction and prescription — a one-two, revolutionary technology punch.

This new approach to issue-identification, prediction and decision-making is on full display during a new XPRIZE competition dubbed the Pandemic Response Challenge. A nearly three-month initiative co-sponsored by Cognizant, the challenge tasks participants to come up with the best way to use artificial intelligence to accurately predict COVID-19 infection rates and offer prescriptive intervention, all in an effort to save lives and re-open businesses, communities and the global economy. While there’s a $500,000 grand prize hanging in the balance for the top two winning teams, organizers say the real reward is in showcasing artificial intelligence capabilities and the power of machine learning. Simulations and models that are created during the challenge will not only have an enormous effect on the continuing battle against COVID-19, but they will also be potentially transformative in everyday business decision-making.

But for now, this XPRIZE competition, the 23rd since the organization was founded in 1994, remains squarely focused on COVID-19. Organizers are hopeful the competition will shine a bright light on the monumental advancement of this technology and offer assessment paradigms, predictive platforms and a path forward for real-world applications to address the pandemic.

“This challenge will inspire some of the world’s brightest innovators to address the immediate threats to our economies and livelihoods,” said Amir Banifatemi, chief innovation and growth officer at XPRIZE. He said the challenge could be a “game-changer when it comes to using data and artificial intelligence to create a route to recovery,” especially now that vaccines are becoming available.

The ambitious, 10-week timeline of the competition underscores the urgency of stopping the spread of COVID-19 and developing a framework for communities and businesses to safely reopen. The challenge organizers are confident that artificial intelligence will help determine the best ways for communities to reopen, people to reengage with one another and the world to reclaim a sense of normal. In the case of COVID-19, AI could dramatically improve data-based decision-making and help shorten — even eliminate — another wave of infection, spread and death.

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