Taking the AI Road

Artificial intelligence is helping the world fight the global pandemic and helping startups survive the economic downturn

The critically acclaimed movie ‘The Imitation Game’ familiarized the world with Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician whose efforts helped turn AI from science-fiction to reality in the 1950s with his research paper entitled ‘Computing Machinery And Intelligence.’ 

Since then, AI has left the research labs and firmly planted its feet in the business world. Though AI naysayers are aplenty, like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who had suggested in 2017 that an AI arms race could culminate in World War III, AI has quickly proven its worth in countless fields. And more recently, AI has emerged as a leading tool to combat Covid-19.

AI has matured considerably over the last 2 decades

While the pandemic has created unprecedented hurdles and challenges for businesses worldwide, with most businesses struggling in the face of declining cash reserves and lay-offs, it has also presented unique opportunities for startups, especially those using AI.

At the Dell Technologies World Show in 2018, CEO Michael Dell referred to “an absolute explosion for use of AI.” AI is essential to drawing meaningful inferences from the vast volume of business-generated data, he added.

AI applications have expanded into diverse fields and industries including machine learning, speech recognition, and computer vision. But as the technology matures, more ominous trends like deepfakes, AI Trojans, and biases in AI have also emerged.

The primary driver of AI adoption in the business world is a focus on improving customer experience (International Data Corporation). The need for automation has also propelled AI adoption across industries.

In fact, worldwide investments in AI startups reached a record high of US$26.6 billion in 2019, while nearly 500 AI startups across the globe bagged a total of $8.4 billion in Q1 2020 (CBInsights), despite a decline in investment deals due to Covid-19. 

Asia is becoming an AI hotspot: Intel recently made two $900 million+ acquisitions in the region, and India surpassed all Asian countries in AI merger and acquisition deals last year, overtaking China, home to the world’s most valuable AI startup SenseTime (CBInsights). 

Armed with AI startups join the battle against Covid-19

Artificial intelligence has taken on a new avatar in the age of COVID-19. Startups are using AI to forecast where an outbreak is likely to occur, monitor lockdown compliance, speedily read CT scans to detect Covid-19, find the best candidates for vaccine testing, limit exposure of frontline workers, and also deploying it in drones delivering medical supplies.

Curiously, not only are specialized healthcare AIs being used in the fight against Covid-19, but startups are pivoting and finding new use cases for their AI-based products to join the battle and survive the economic downturn. 

Case study: Turtle Shell

Bangalore, India-based startup Turtle Shell’s sleep-monitoring devices are now being used as contactless health monitors for Covid-19 patients.

Founded in 2015 and backed by the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, Turtle Shell retails a sleep monitoring sheet called Dozee that can detect heartbeats and respiration. These devices can be paired with a smartphone app and placed under mattresses up to 18 inches thick, and provide data with medical-grade accuracy of 98.4%.

Although designed to monitor sleep, these devices are now being used in hospitals and quarantine centers to monitor patients remotely for deviations in their respiration and heartbeat, thereby limiting the exposure of frontline healthcare workers and reducing the chances of infection.

“This has proven life-saving in multiple cases–we actually flagged early cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and heart failure, and we were able to do it because of the trend-based data,” says Pritish Gupta, COO and CBO of Turtle Shell.

To adapt to COVID-19 demands, all patient data is now sent to a single dashboard which can be monitored by nurses without contact with the patient. The startup has also integrated blood pressure and oxygen level monitoring and plans to add temperature sensing to better serve the needs of medical practitioners.

Although the startup has experienced increasing consumer demand for Dozee, fulfilling orders has been difficult due to countrywide lockdowns. However, with burgeoning interest for Dozee in hospitals and isolation centers, the startup has shifted its focus to monetize B2B demand.

Case Study: Calumino

Calumino, a 6-year-old Australian startup, has developed a low-cost smart thermal sensor powered by computer vision. The technology involves various Internet of Things (IoT) devices, along a thermal sensor to collect environmental data. Calumino’s technology can be used in smart buildings, for fire detection, security, and monitoring. 

The startup was two weeks away from installing close to 180 devices in old-age care facilities when the pandemic began. Within two weeks, Calumino realized that its products could no longer safely be deployed, and quickly assessed the technology’s ability to detect body temperature.

According to Calumino’s Business Development Manager Matthew Horgan, the decision to pivot was taken within a week, and the startup began developing a face temperature detection device that could be used in hospitals, schools, airports, and other public buildings.

This new product needed some adjustments to make it work. For instance, the AI face-detection needed to be optimized to detect an individual’s forehead – the correct region for temperature measurement – and show an error if the forehead is covered. Employees’ spare bedrooms were commandeered for the development process.

However, by April 20, Calumino had started selling its new product, christened Rapid Thermo Screener (RTS). 

Calumino has put its previous thermal sensor project on hold indefinitely, but in the bigger picture, has managed to stay afloat by being agile and making a tough call, unlike many other startups still suffering financially. 

While AI is being universally adopted to help businesses process data and improve efficiency, the biggest fields attracting AI adoption include automation, autonomous driving, and federated learning, which provides increased data privacy while still improving the AI model used for applications like Google’s text prediction software.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, will use IoT and machine learning to dominate smart city contracts in 2020. AI for energy is also expected to be a major theme in 2020, with the demand created by tech giants, automakers, and oil and gas companies alike, which are all looking to cut costs, improve efficiencies, and meet global power consumption targets (CBInsights).

Although COVID-19 has brought the importance of AI in healthcare to the forefront, the sector was experiencing an explosion of growth even before the pandemic. In fact, the AI healthcare market in the U.S. is expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2021 at a CAGR of 40% (Accenture).

All this inevitably points to the future dominance of AI, as businesses adopt it to improve processes across the board, and human interaction with it increases globally. 

As the CTO and Innovation Officer at Accenture Paul Daugherty once wrote, “The playing field is poised to become a lot more competitive, and businesses that don’t deploy AI and data to help them innovate in everything they do will be at a disadvantage.” 

Monika is a staff writer at Jumpstart. 

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