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How COVID-19 offers a glimpse into the future of AI

AI enables new forms of human-machine collaboration

In times of crisis, help can come from the most unexpected places.

We’re seeing that now in the ways that artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to protect healthcare workers and aid the effort to overcome COVID-19. And we’re just scratching the surface on the potential for AI to make the entire healthcare journey safer and more humane for nurses, doctors, and patients.

At Tampa General Hospital in Florida, an AI-driven technology screens individuals for COVID-19 symptoms before they interact with hospital staff and patients. At Massachusetts General Hospital, physician researchers are exploring the use of AI-powered robots to obtain vital signs and deliver medicine in COVID-19 surge clinics, allowing caregivers to avoid potentially dangerous human contact.

This growing human-AI partnership may be the most significant technology trend being accelerated by COVID-19. It’s likely to become a permanent part of our post-pandemic world. In fact, the rapid deployment and scale of these tools offers lessons to organizations—and a glimpse into the future of AI in the workplace.

New human-AI partnerships

True partnerships between humans and AI assistants have grown out of the pandemic response.

At Seattle’s Providence St. Joseph Health, an AI-powered chatbot delivers care on an unprecedented scale in an admittedly unprecedented time. In its first week of deployment, the chatbot screened and triaged more than 40,000 patients, categorizing them by level of needed care and freeing doctors and nurses to focus on at-risk individuals.

With resources scarce, this type of capability is life-saving, and shows how AI can augment—not replace—human workers.

True partnerships between humans and AI assistants have grown out of the pandemic response.

In my conversations with executives around the globe, I’m hearing less about bots replacing people. Instead, the focus is on using AI to enhance agility and eliminate important yet rudimentary, time-consuming tasks. That’s exactly what we are seeing in the healthcare setting today. It’s an example all organizations should seek to emulate.

Leveraging the power of NLU

The chatbots at Providence St. Joseph and other healthcare organizations also serve as highly efficient knowledge-sharing platforms. In a crisis, quick access to information is critical. The ability of chatbots to serve as highly informed virtual assistants will only improve as AI becomes more sophisticated.

Organizations in all industries are integrating chatbots as part of a larger digital transformation strategy. And as natural language understanding (NLU) advances, bot-to-bot communication will become effective enough that humans can simply and easily access information on the topic of their choice.

For example, doctors could pull up a patient’s records while an AI assistant finds and communicates data on outcomes for similar patient profiles. This is an obvious technological evolution we could see soon in a hospital setting.

Building trust in AI

AI tools are also making intelligent recommendations, not just sharing data. China’s Zhongnan Hospital, for example, already uses AI to interpret CT scans and identify COVID-19 symptoms when human radiologists are unavailable.

While this ability to identify trends and disease markers isn’t necessarily new, the growing trust in AI signifies a shift—albeit one created by necessity—in our attitudes.

As our comfort with this new “intelligence” grows and as AI advances, it will move beyond the identification of trends or markers to the prescription of specific actions. In healthcare, that may mean an AI program that first identifies COVID-19 and, after sorting through millions of patient data points, recommends a personalized care plan in response.

That’s just the beginning. As pools of data grow along with processing power, AI’s abilities will increase and accelerate. It’s even likely that AI will play a significant role in ending the pandemic itself.

Periods of upheaval create lasting change. The present crisis is no different, and I believe some good will come of this challenging situation—from healthcare that works for everyone to creating more resilient enterprises. The innovative use of AI to augment our healthcare heroes is just one example, one that should inform our post-pandemic world.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

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