AI emerged as a key contributor in the fight against coronavirus

April 21, 2020 08:27
Photo: Bloomberg

Big data and Artificial intelligence are transforming the way we live and work and has recently emerged as a key contributor in the fight against Coronavirus. All eyes have been on China; from monitoring the spread of the disease since the outbreak, to its technological advances as a renowned hub for big tech. We have witnessed a steep incline in the development of AI-related research and applications out of China over the last few years, and four months on from the first reported case of the virus in Wuhan, these technologies now being deployed in full force to combat Covid-19 from screening to containment and drug development.

But while AI has the potential to create innovative solutions to control the epidemic, robust discussions focus on data privacy and public health benefits that guide the approach of data tracking. We discussed this in great depths at the virtual evidence meeting by members of the UK Parliamentary All Party Group (APPG) on Artificial Intelligence; covering the pros and cons of a top-down, central data trust approach and a blockchain-led, bottom-up, voluntary product approach. There are obvious ethical, political and legal challenges as noted by the European Data Protection Board which issued a position statement in March 2020. For that reason, the responsible use of AI has become a key ESG consideration and will continue to be a prominent engagement theme for us over the long-term. We urge businesses to harness this opportunity by addressing and scrutinising the sustainability issues surrounding AI. If handled responsibly, its benefits could serve humankind, corporations and society at large.

Ping An

One such company which has come to the fore during the pandemic has been Ping An, an integrated financial services provider dual listed in Hong Kong and Shanghai and headquartered in Shenzhen. As nations worldwide have struggled on a daily basis to grasp the severity of the outbreak, Ping An’s Smart Healthcare Team has developed a Smart image reading system to help provide clarity on the number of people affected by the virus. Just over a month after launch, Ping An’s AI-powered audio screening system was able to complete over 580,000 screenings in China and identify 1,600 suspected cases.

With human operators in China unable to carry out the volume of screenings needed, Ping An’s system enables up to 3,000 AI robots to screen at the same time, creating efficiencies and freeing up personnel to prioritise their efforts on more important tasks. We have now seen experts urging the UK to follow suit and explore the option of a virus-tracking application to relieve some of the impacts felt by the pandemic in the West.

We are supportive of AI-generated products such as those created by Ping An, however the rapid pace of innovation can also result in risks in vulnerabilities. We have engaged with the company since 2017 on issues including ethical implications of increased use AI in the sector, such as the potential amplification of inherent bias, discrimination against the disadvantaged, and insufficient customer consent on data collection and usage.

In August 2019, based on our recommendations, the company became the first Chinese asset owner signatory of the PRI and one of the first major financial institutions globally to publish a set of AI ethical principles. The company is also the only Chinese insurance company which has contributed to the Geneva Association Principles for AI published in Jan 2020.


During these testing times with an urgent need for a solution, it is understandable as to why the risks of AI such as violation of rights, cybercrime and discrimination, may be overlooked. With big tech shedding some light at the end of the tunnel with multiple innovative applications, it is key that they follow the likes of Ping An and consider how they can amplify the benefits of AI whilst managing its risks.

It is also important to remember that, even though for obvious reasons technology companies have been the initial targets of engagement on AI and data governance so far, big data and AI are used in every sector. There are some common concerns, notwithstanding the benefits, challenges and applications. Engagement on this topic should not be confined to one sector, and businesses should educate themselves on what encompasses AI and how they could be exposed.

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Engagement Professional, EOS at Federated Hermes