When a new coronavirus emerged from nature in 2019, it changed the world. But COVID-19 won’t be the last disease to jump out of the shrinking wilderness. Just this weekend, it was announced that Australia is no longer a spectator, as Canada, the United States and European countries scramble to contain monkeypox, a less dangerous relative of the dreaded smallpox virus that we’ve been able to eradicate at great cost.
As we push nature to the edges, we are making the world less safe for both humans and animals. That’s because environmental devastation forces virus-carrying animals to get close to us or us. And when an infectious disease like COVID is transmitted, it can easily pose a global health threat given our deeply interconnected world, ease of travel and dense and growing cities.
We can no longer ignore that humans are part of the environment, not separate from it. Our health is closely related to the health of animals and the environment. This will not be the last epidemic.
To better prepare for the next spread of viruses from animals, we must focus on the links between human health, the environment, and animal health. This is known as the One Health approach, which has been endorsed by the World Health Organization and many other organizations.
We believe that AI can help us better understand this network of communication, and teach us how to keep life in balance.
How can artificial intelligence help us stave off new epidemics?
60% of all human infectious diseases are zoonotic, that is, they come from animals. These include the deadly Ebola virus, which came from primates, swine flu, from pigs, and the new coronavirus, most likely from bats. It is also possible for humans to infect animals with our diseases, as recent research indicates transmission of COVID-19 from humans to cats as well as deer.
Early warning of new zoonoses is vital, if we are to be able to tackle viral spread before it becomes a pandemic. Pandemics such as swine flu (H1N1 flu) and COVID-19 have shown us the huge potential for AI prediction and disease monitoring. In the case of monkeypox, the virus has Already traded in African countries, but has now made an international leap.
Read more: On the path to the origins of Covid-19
What does this look like? Consider collecting and analyzing real-time data on infection rates. In fact, AI was initially used to refer to the new coronavirus as it was turning into a pandemic, with work done by AI company Bluedot and HealthMap at Boston Children’s Hospital.
How do? By tracking massive flows of data in ways that humans can’t. Healthmap, for example, uses natural language processing and machine learning to analyze data from government reports, social media, news sites, and other online sources to track the global spread of the outbreak.
We can also use AI to mine social media data to understand where and when the next COVID surge will take place. Other researchers are using artificial intelligence to examine the genetic sequences of viruses that infect animals in order to predict whether they can jump from their animal host to humans.
As climate change alters Earth’s systems, it is also altering the ways diseases are spread and distributed. Here, too, artificial intelligence can be used in new monitoring methods.
Better conservation through artificial intelligence
There are clear links between our destruction of the environment and the emergence of new infectious diseases and zoonoses. This means that protecting and preserving nature also helps our health. By keeping ecosystems safe and healthy, we can prevent future disease outbreaks.
In the field of conservation, too, artificial intelligence can help. For example, Wildbook uses computer vision algorithms to detect individual animals in images and track them over time. This allows researchers to produce better estimates of population sizes.
Environmental destruction by deforestation or illegal mining can also be monitored by AI, for example through the Trends.Earth project, which monitors satellite imagery and Earth observation data for signs of unwanted change.
Citizen scientists can also get involved by helping train machine learning algorithms to improve identification of endangered plants and animals on platforms like Zooniverse.
Artificial intelligence for the natural world as well as humans
Researchers are beginning to look into the ethics of AI research on animals. If AI is used carelessly, we can actually see worse outcomes for domestic and wild animal species, for example, animal tracking data can be prone to errors if it is not double checked by humans on Earth, or even by hunters.
Artificial intelligence is morally blind. Unless we take steps to embed values into this program, we may end up with a machine that replicates existing biases. For example, if there are existing inequalities in human access to water resources, they can easily be recreated in AI tools that would preserve that inequity. That’s why organizations like AINowInstitute focus on bias and environmental justice in AI.
In 2019, the European Union released the Ethical Guidelines for Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence. The goal was to ensure that AI tools are transparent and prioritize human agency and environmental health.
Read more: How to prevent a mass extinction in the ocean using AI, robotics and 3D printers
AI tools have real potential to help us weather the next pandemic by monitoring viruses and helping us keep nature intact. But for this to happen, we will have to extend AI outward, away from the human focus of most AI tools, toward embracing the environment we live in and sharing it with other species.
We must do this while embedding our AI tools with principles of transparency, fairness, and rights protection for all.