Australians will be alerted within minutes if they fall ill under an ambitious new plan by scientists who hope artificial intelligence will be the key to stopping the next pandemic or slowing the spread of weaponised diseases.
- The defense agency is investigating wearable technology that could alert the wearer when they are sick.
- Researchers hope that an AI algorithm can learn to read changes in the body to detect diseases early
- They hope the technology could prevent a pandemic, but health experts say its benefits may be limited
Researchers at the University of South Australia have won a $1 million grant to study whether consumer technology such as smartwatches can detect early signs of infection by measuring subtle changes such as sleep and skin temperature.
Currently, science takes several hours to detect an infection in the human body. But Axel Bender, who leads a team of innovation-focused scientists at the Australian government’s Defense Science and Technology Group, hopes that will soon be a thing of the past.
“Our goal is to cut that down to minutes, from 20 minutes to an hour,” Dr. Bender said.
In the event of another pandemic, he said, the consequences could be huge because health authorities could act immediately by quarantining people while infection rates are still low.
“You don’t need to lock down anymore because you’re breaking down the infection pathways earlier,” Dr. Bender said.
The first Australian study is part of a body of work using the human body as a sensor to detect biological or chemical threats. It is officially known in the Australian defense community as the Human Integrated Sensor System.
The project is funded by the Defense Science and Technology Group of the Australian Ministry of Defence. It is hoped that this research will also help soldiers on the battlefield and in disaster zones who face the threat of biological warfare.
The promise of the technology has led some scientists like Dr Bender to personally urge Australia to invest in this type of research as part of a national effort.
“Essentially there’s no spread because you’re intervening before the infection becomes widespread, you don’t call it a pandemic anymore,” he said.
So where does AI come from?
Through millions of years of evolution, the human body has become sensitive to things that cause stress and usually responds immediately to them.
The scientists’ plan is to use the body as an alarm to detect diseases or biological threats, including chemical warfare.
They do this by giving 100 study participants three devices—an Oura ring that measures sleep, a Garmin smartwatch that can track activity, and an EmbracePlus smartwatch that collects health data.
These devices measure a participant’s vital signs before and after they receive a COVID or flu vaccine, which tests their immune system in the same way that they are exposed to an infection.
The data is then fed into an artificial intelligence algorithm that tracks the subtle changes that occur when the immune system is threatened.
“We know there is a certain physiological response,” said lead researcher Professor Siobhan Banks of the University of South Australia.
“From this data, we hope to be able to develop algorithms to see the first signs of an immune response.
“If people know that they are sick or at high risk of getting sick and that they can be contagious … it really means that people will make better choices about whether or not to go to social situations. work or stay at home.’
Dr Zygmunt Spak, who is developing the algorithm at Insight Via AI, said the project was an important step for Australia, which has “a lot of AI capacity and talent”.
“But we’re not very good at commercializing it,” Dr. Spack said.
“It’s a tragedy, and I think it’s going to be wonderful to really expand that opportunity so we can take advantage of our top graduates.”
Dr. Bender hopes that such technology will be available by the end of the decade.
How to prevent this pandemic?
Dr. Bender says that knowing as soon as possible that someone is infected means that they can be treated with drugs sooner before their body becomes infected with the pathogen.
It also means outbreaks can be better managed at a population level through targeted quarantines, and that could end the need for lockdowns, he said.
“You can actually isolate infected people from the rest of the population when the infected person is not contagious, which means you disrupt the infection pathway much earlier,” he said.
Dr. Bender also believes that technology around the Human Integrated Sensory System could eventually detect new and emerging infections in the same way that it detects small changes in the body and detects old ones.
This information is then combined with current technology to quickly produce algorithms to detect these new viruses.
But health experts are cautious about the proposed benefits.
Professor Nancy Baxter, who heads the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said the plan was “probably” possible, but would depend on the type of virus or bacteria that was the source of the infection.
Professor Baxter said: “I think when they talk about avoiding the lockdown, I think it’s kind of blue sky and maybe over-optimistic.”
“I think there are more useful, realistic ways to think about wearables and human health.”
Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, said the research could prompt people to get tested sooner or self-isolate.
“You can imagine an Orwellian world where we all have to wear this device and it’s monitored by someone else centrally and when your body temperature rises or your heart rate rises, you’re directed to go and get tested,” the professor said. Blakely said.
“In all such cases it would help a lot, but I don’t think the public will accept such a draconian kind of implementation.
“It’s not a panacea, but it might help a little, along with other measures like being prepared to use masks.”
What about biological warfare?
Biological warfare refers to pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi that are used against combatants and spread through infection.
Dr. Bender said this type of technology could allow the military to detect whether soldiers are infected with the pathogen.
Under the plan, sick soldiers wearing the device could be isolated from their units more quickly and then treated to prevent the spread of infection.
“We know that with chemical or biological warfare agents … not everyone adheres to the conventions that ban these weapons,” Dr. Bender said.
“I’m not saying the threat is worse than it was, but we’ve all heard Vladimir Putin talk about the possibility that he has nuclear weapons and that he has chemical weapons in the context of the Ukraine war. consider using them, so the risks are real.”
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