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Coronavirus has been all over the news for the last couple weeks. A dedicated hospital sprang up in just eight days, the stock market took a hit, Chinese New Year celebrations were spoiled, and travel restrictions are in effect.
But let’s rewind a bit; some crucial events took place before we got to this point.
A little under two weeks before the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted the public of the coronavirus outbreak, a Canadian artificial intelligence company was already sounding the alarm. BlueDot uses AI-powered algorithms to analyze information from a multitude of sources to identify disease outbreaks and forecast how they may spread. On December 31st 2019, the company sent out a warning to its customers to avoid Wuhan, where the virus originated. The WHO didn’t send out a similar public notice until January 9th, 2020.
The story of BlueDot’s early warning is the latest example of how AI can improve our identification of and response to new virus outbreaks.
Predictions Are Bad News
Global pandemic or relatively minor scare? The jury is still out on the coronavirus. However, the math points to signs that the worst is yet to come.
Scientists are still working to determine how infectious the virus is. Initial analysis suggests it may be somewhere between influenza and polio on the virus reproduction number scale, which indicates how many new cases one case leads to.
UK and US-based researchers have published a preliminary paper estimating that the confirmed infected people in Wuhan only represent five percent of those who are actually infected. If the models are correct, 190,000 people in Wuhan will be infected by now, major Chinese cities are on the cusp of large-scale outbreaks, and the virus will continue to spread to other countries.
Finding the Start
The spread of a given virus is partly linked to how long it remains undetected. Identifying a new virus is the first step towards mobilizing a response and, in time, creating a vaccine. Warning at-risk populations as quickly as possible also helps with limiting the spread.
These are among the reasons why BlueDot’s achievement is important in and of itself. Furthermore, it illustrates how AIs can sift through vast troves of data to identify ongoing virus outbreaks.
BlueDot uses natural language processing and machine learning to scour a variety of information sources, including chomping through 100,000 news reports in 65 languages a day. Data is compared with flight records to help predict virus outbreak patterns. Once the automated data sifting is completed, epidemiologists check that the findings make sense from a scientific standpoint, and reports are sent to BlueDot’s customers, which include governments, businesses, and public health organizations.
AI for Virus Detection and Prevention
Other companies, such as Metabiota, are also using data-driven approaches to track the spread of the likes of the coronavirus.
Researchers have trained neural networks to predict the spread of infectious diseases in real time. Others are using AI algorithms to identify how preventive measures can have the greatest effect. AI is also being used to create new drugs, which we may well see repeated for the coronavirus.
If the work of scientists Barbara Han and David Redding comes to fruition, AI and machine learning may even help us predict where virus outbreaks are likely to strike—before they do.
The Uncertainty Factor
One of AI’s core strengths when working on identifying and limiting the effects of virus outbreaks is its incredibly insistent nature. AIs never tire, can sift through enormous amounts of data, and identify possible correlations and causations that humans can’t.
However, there are limits to AI’s ability to both identify virus outbreaks and predict how they will spread. Perhaps the best-known example comes from the neighboring field of big data analytics. At its launch, Google Flu Trends was heralded as a great leap forward in relation to identifying and estimating the spread of the flu—until it underestimated the 2013 flu season by a whopping 140 percent and was quietly put to rest.
Poor data quality was identified as one of the main reasons Google Flu Trends failed. Unreliable or faulty data can wreak havoc on the prediction power of AIs.
In our increasingly interconnected world, tracking the movements of potentially infected individuals (by car, trains, buses, or planes) is just one vector surrounded by a lot of uncertainty.
The fact that BlueDot was able to correctly identify the coronavirus, in part due to its AI technology, illustrates that smart computer systems can be incredibly useful in helping us navigate these uncertainties.
Importantly, though, this isn’t the same as AI being at a point where it unerringly does so on its own—which is why BlueDot employs human experts to validate the AI’s findings.
Image Credit: Coronavirus molecular illustration, Gianluca Tomasello/Wikimedia Commons Continue reading
The robots are coming! The robots are coming! On our sidewalks, in our skies, in our every store… Over the next decade, robots will enter the mainstream of retail.
As countless robots work behind the scenes to stock shelves, serve customers, and deliver products to our doorstep, the speed of retail will accelerate.
These changes are already underway. In this blog, we’ll elaborate on how robots are entering the retail ecosystem.
Let’s dive in.
On August 3rd, 2016, Domino’s Pizza introduced the Domino’s Robotic Unit, or “DRU” for short. The first home delivery pizza robot, the DRU looks like a cross between R2-D2 and an oversized microwave.
LIDAR and GPS sensors help it navigate, while temperature sensors keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Already, it’s been rolled out in ten countries, including New Zealand, France, and Germany, but its August 2016 debut was critical—as it was the first time we’d seen robotic home delivery.
And it won’t be the last.
A dozen or so different delivery bots are fast entering the market. Starship Technologies, for instance, a startup created by Skype founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, has a general-purpose home delivery robot. Right now, the system is an array of cameras and GPS sensors, but upcoming models will include microphones, speakers, and even the ability—via AI-driven natural language processing—to communicate with customers. Since 2016, Starship has already carried out 50,000 deliveries in over 100 cities across 20 countries.
Along similar lines, Nuro—co-founded by Jiajun Zhu, one of the engineers who helped develop Google’s self-driving car—has a miniature self-driving car of its own. Half the size of a sedan, the Nuro looks like a toaster on wheels, except with a mission. This toaster has been designed to carry cargo—about 12 bags of groceries (version 2.0 will carry 20)—which it’s been doing for select Kroger stores since 2018. Domino’s also partnered with Nuro in 2019.
As these delivery bots take to our streets, others are streaking across the sky.
Back in 2016, Amazon came first, announcing Prime Air—the e-commerce giant’s promise of drone delivery in 30 minutes or less. Almost immediately, companies ranging from 7-Eleven and Walmart to Google and Alibaba jumped on the bandwagon.
While critics remain doubtful, the head of the FAA’s drone integration department recently said that drone deliveries may be “a lot closer than […] the skeptics think. [Companies are] getting ready for full-blown operations. We’re processing their applications. I would like to move as quickly as I can.”
While delivery bots start to spare us trips to the store, those who prefer shopping the old-fashioned way—i.e., in person—also have plenty of human-robot interaction in store. In fact, these robotics solutions have been around for a while.
In 2010, SoftBank introduced Pepper, a humanoid robot capable of understanding human emotion. Pepper is cute: 4 feet tall, with a white plastic body, two black eyes, a dark slash of a mouth, and a base shaped like a mermaid’s tail. Across her chest is a touch screen to aid in communication. And there’s been a lot of communication. Pepper’s cuteness is intentional, as it matches its mission: help humans enjoy life as much as possible.
Over 12,000 Peppers have been sold. She serves ice cream in Japan, greets diners at a Pizza Hut in Singapore, and dances with customers at a Palo Alto electronics store. More importantly, Pepper’s got company.
Walmart uses shelf-stocking robots for inventory control. Best Buy uses a robo-cashier, allowing select locations to operate 24-7. And Lowe’s Home Improvement employs the LoweBot—a giant iPad on wheels—to help customers find the items they need while tracking inventory along the way.
Yet the biggest benefit robots provide might be in-warehouse logistics.
In 2012, when Amazon dished out $775 million for Kiva Systems, few could predict that just 6 years later, 45,000 Kiva robots would be deployed at all of their fulfillment centers, helping process a whopping 306 items per second during the Christmas season.
And many other retailers are following suit.
Order jeans from the Gap, and soon they’ll be sorted, packed, and shipped with the help of a Kindred robot. Remember the old arcade game where you picked up teddy bears with a giant claw? That’s Kindred, only her claw picks up T-shirts, pants, and the like, placing them in designated drop-off zones that resemble tiny mailboxes (for further sorting or shipping).
The big deal here is democratization. Kindred’s robot is cheap and easy to deploy, allowing smaller companies to compete with giants like Amazon.
For retailers interested in staying in business, there doesn’t appear to be much choice in the way of robotics.
By 2024, the US minimum wage is projected to be $15 an hour (the House of Representatives has already passed the bill, but the wage hike is meant to unfold gradually between now and 2025), and many consider that number far too low.
Yet, as human labor costs continue to climb, robots won’t just be coming, they’ll be here, there, and everywhere. It’s going to become increasingly difficult for store owners to justify human workers who call in sick, show up late, and can easily get injured. Robots work 24-7. They never take a day off, never need a bathroom break, health insurance, or parental leave.
Going forward, this spells a growing challenge of technological unemployment (a blog topic I will cover in the coming month). But in retail, robotics usher in tremendous benefits for companies and customers alike.
And while professional re-tooling initiatives and the transition of human capital from retail logistics to a booming experience economy take hold, robotic retail interaction and last-mile delivery will fundamentally transform our relationship with commerce.
This blog comes from The Future is Faster Than You Think—my upcoming book, to be released Jan 28th, 2020. To get an early copy and access up to $800 worth of pre-launch giveaways, sign up here!
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Image Credit: Image by imjanuary from Pixabay Continue reading