Russ Altman (Image credit: Courtesy Russ Altman)

The impact of COVID-19 on society and the way artificial intelligence can be leveraged to increase understanding of the virus and its spread will be the focus of an April 1 virtual conference sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI).

COVID-19 and AI: A Virtual Conference, which is open to the public, will convene experts from Stanford and beyond. It will be livestreamed to engage the broad research community, government and international organizations, and civil society.

Russ Altman, one of the conference chairs, is an associate director of HAI and the Kenneth Fong Professor and professor of bioengineering, of genetics, of medicine, of biomedical data science, and, by courtesy, of computer science. He is also the host of the Sirius radio show The Future of Everything. He discusses the aims of the conference.


What was the idea behind the conference?

At HAI, we felt this was an opportunity to use our unique focus on AI and humanity to serve the public in a time of crisis. The issues involved in the pandemic are both nuanced and complex. Approaching it from multiple fields of expertise will help speed us toward solutions. The goal is to make leading-edge and interdisciplinary research available, bringing together our network of experts from across different schools and departments.

We have a world-class set of doctors and biological scientists at Stanford Medical School and they’ll, of course, be involved. We’ll also have experts on AI, as well as the social sciences and humanities, to give their scholarly perspective on the implications of this virus, now and over time. The conference will be entirely virtual with every speaker participating remotely, providing an unpolished but authentic window into the minds of thinkers we respect.


What useful information will come out of the conference?

We’re asking our speakers to begin their presentation by talking about the problem they’re addressing and why it matters. They will present the methods they’re using, whether scientific or sociological or humanistic, the results they’re seeing – even if their work is preliminary – and the caveats to their conclusions. Then they’ll go into deeper detail that will be very interesting to academic researchers and colleagues. Importantly, we intend to have a summary of key takeaways afterward along with links to information where people can learn more.

We will not give medical advice or information about how to ensure personal safety. The CDC and other public health agencies are mobilized to do that.


What do you think AI has to offer in the fight over viruses like COVID-19?

AI is extremely good at finding patterns across multiple data types. For example, we’re now able to analyze patterns of human response to the pressures of the pandemic as measured through sentiments on social media, and even patterns in geospatial data to see where social distancing may and may not be working. And, of course, we are using AI to look for patterns in the genome of the virus and its biology to see where we can attack it.

This interdisciplinary conference will show how the availability of molecular, cellular and genomic data, patient and hospital data, population data – all of that can be harnessed for insight. We’ve always examined these data sources through more traditional methods. But now for the first time, and at a critical time of global crisis, we have the ability to use AI to look deeper into data and see patterns that were otherwise not visible previously, including the social and cultural impact of this pandemic. This is what will enable us to work together as a scholarly, scientific community to help the future of humankind.


Who do you hope will attend?

The core audience is scholars and researchers. We want to have a meaningful discussion about the research challenges and opportunities in the battle against this virus. Having said that, we know that there are many people with an interest in how scientists, researchers, sociologists and humanists are helping in this time of crisis. So we’re making the conference open to anyone interested in attending. It will be a live video stream from a link on our website, and available as a recording afterward.


What kind of policy effect do you hope the conference can have?

Good policy is always informed by good research. A major goal of HAI is to catalyze high-quality research that we hope will be heeded by policymakers as they work to craft responses to COVID-19 and future pandemic threats. So this will give insights to policymakers on what will be published in the coming months.

Register for the April 1 conference.

Learn more about the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI).