Fighting COVID-19 With Collective Intelligence

7 min read

“Collective Intelligence is the capacity of human collectives to engage in intellectual cooperation in order to create, innovate, and invent.” – Pierre Lévy, philosopher, cultural theorist, media scholar, and a specialist in human collective intelligence

As is evident from the term, collective intelligence refers to group intellect that emerges when people work together with a sense of healthy competition. It leads them to solve problems and make decisions collectively and provides a greater opportunity to find efficient answers as compared to the times when they do it individually. Attributed to many living beings, this trait has diverse applications such as in domains of political science, computing, sociobiology, mass peer review, crowdsourcing, voting systems, and social media in the long list of many others. In short, collective intelligence is all about successful collaboration!

The havoc wreaked by the novel coronavirus disease has pretty much upturned our lives. It has forced us to make drastic changes in our lifestyles and, in the process, has spread anxiety, panic, and terror at an unprecedented rate. All around the world, scientists, researchers, healthcare workers, and policymakers are uniting against SARS-CoV-2. The aim is to analyze this virus and the pandemic caused by it in a better manner and, as a result, come up with effective treatment, vaccination, and tackling strategies. In such a case, the question arises – Can the popular concept of collective intelligence, if implemented at several scales and levels, rescue us from these times of crisis? Well, it seems possible.

The Beginning – Collaborative Intelligence In Academia

The beginning of the current pandemic saw the conventional research studies accelerating and changing considerably, with renowned journals (Cell, Nature, etc.) immediately making their publications on the novel coronavirus disease available for all. Many universities and research organizations have been constantly updating their open and collaborative stream of data on this viral illness so that the world can have a better understanding of this crisis. Research results are being published at a fast pace on preprint servers and lab websites. Various outreach videos, important articles, and other means of information about SARS-CoV-2 are available on the internet.

Furthermore, academic communities are self-organizing to provide innovative solutions for urgent problems that require interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary skills and knowledge. Such platforms are facilitating effective coordination by linking the requirements of communities and launching immediate research projects (such as low-cost diagnostic techniques, mask designs, community surveillance, survival kits, ventilator prototypes, programs for effective containment of this disease, etc.) to ensure efficient addressing of several challenges that have arisen because of COVID-19.

Amidst all this, the online mode of education is gaining tremendous popularity. A significantly large number of educational institutes across the globe have encouraged more and more of their teachers and students to get connected through various virtual means. For example, Harvard University is offering several online courses for free to students around the world. This paradigm is serving multiple purposes – firstly, there are no boundaries, all we need is a stable internet connection and we have the opportunity to attend lectures of eminent faculty and learn from the comfort of our homes. Secondly, it ensures that the education of students is not hampered because of this pandemic. Thirdly, it is equipping them to deal with the present situation in a much better manner, by motivating them to be a part of various global collaborative initiatives as an active effort to combat this viral illness.

Advances In Digital Research Technologies

Augmenting the wisdom of machines with those of humans is helping the world to generate new and improved insights from several novel sources of data. Such an approach is particularly suited to address the complex and fast-evolving global matters of grave concern such as the current crisis. In the past few months, numerous platforms, websites, and applications have been developed to monitor the health status of the public, predict the trajectory of the novel coronavirus across the globe, assess the extent of infections in specific regions, and so forth. These utilize various tools and techniques to learn from large volumes of data and explore numerous credible reports and statistics to generate the required outputs.

There have been initiatives that generate new scientific data about the course of the spread of this infection (also applicable to other similar situations) by involving help from the public. People are requested to download applications that monitor their GPS positions and are asked to report who they had contact with during a particular day. Such efforts have created a huge wealth of information that is constantly helping the researchers and scientists in numerous ways, such as developing an understanding of who the super-spreaders are, the effect of preventive measures that have been implemented on limiting this outbreak, etc. This is a good example of citizen science, which involves data collection and analysis by members of the public with professional scientists, typically as part of a collaborative research project.

Real-time monitoring of information has also seen a great surge in the present times. There are platforms that allow people to observe every known infected case within their localities, the average recovery times as well as the network connections between various infections. This approach is being used in places where the authorities and society believe that openness about the situation is the best way to help everyone make the right and practical decisions about it and manage their anxiety levels in the process. On the other hand, there have also been projects that are utilizing citizen-generated data to monitor the progress of the present pandemic through mining social media posts and natural language processing to observe the present mentions of symptoms (like respiratory problems, fever, etc.) in the locations where potential cases had been reported earlier. They are based on the idea that hotspots of tweets or other social media activities could be decent indicators of monitoring the spread of this disease in any region.

As a part of an interesting effort, researchers from the University of Washington called the society to participate in an online game with the aim to accelerate the development of medicines/vaccines to combat SARS-CoV-2. The challenge involved building a protein that can block the virus from penetrating the human cells. Several other organizations are trying to develop quick and cheap COVID-19 test kits. These can be used anywhere in the world and are based on crowdsourcing ideas from biology communities, with the objective to open source designs so that certified laboratories can easily produce test kits for people. Moreover, the World Health Organization is putting together all the published research into a global database. It is also making learning resources for health professionals and decision-makers for better disease management, and these are available on its online learning platform.

Equipping The Healthcare Sector

Several tools have been created to enable researchers and authorities to map the availability of essential supplies. The frontline workers can use certain techniques to report on low supplies of key equipment on a common platform. This data can be used to display the shortage locations on the map. This, in turn, would enable the governments to be aware of the needs of different healthcare facilities and monitor their existing capacities in real-time. It would provide assistance to organizations, businesses, and manufacturers in responding to areas where these supplies are low, hence preparing the healthcare forces better to face this situation.

Another factor is getting the vital equipment cheaply and quickly delivered into high-infection zones. In such cases, tools such as 3D printing could be utilized to provide a manufacturing capacity that could be helpful with supplying items like masks, gloves, personal protective equipment, and so on, to hospitals and clinics. The successful designs, obtained from this process, could be scaled up by manufacturers with higher production capacities. To effectively deal with the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, schools, colleges, and other similar community buildings can be repurposed as quarantining facilities. Rapid training and mobilization of community health workers can be crucial in tracking the numbers and symptoms of active patients. Governments can use specific tools for the identification of potential virus hotspots and deployment of surge capacity within an area. This could be effectively scaled up to the country-level with proper collective intelligence!

Another latest development has been the involvement of doctors and scientists on various social media platforms. The objective is to spread the maximum possible mass-awareness regarding this pandemic. They have been joining discussion groups on Twitter, Reddit, etc. and giving answers to people in real-time. They also use these platforms to bust myths and call out misinformation associated with this illness, emphasizing that content should always be viewed carefully and should only be believed after confirming its credibility. All these efforts greatly help in speeding up the distribution of relevant information across the globe and creating novel innovations during acute emergency responses like the existing one we are facing.

AI/ML To The Rescue

Utilizing the wisdom of the crowd to make better judgments is a concept acknowledged since times immemorial! Renowned philosophers like Aristotle noted that groups of people often make much more effective decisions as compared to individuals. Recent advancements in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can make harnessing this collective intelligence much easier. It, in turn, will make us more efficient at solving the pressing social challenges in the long run.

It is well known that critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration are the three pillars of a successful work regime in the present times, and this encompasses all possible fields, domains, and spheres known to the world. One of the most significant factors that affect the collective intelligence of a group is the degree of coordination among its members. Smart tools and techniques can be a boon in this area. AI/ML tools can foster communication among the different levels, help in building a repository of information, and assist groups to coordinate their decision-making activities, among other tasks.

How can all this be achieved? It is simply about going back to the basics – analyzing how nature amplifies group intelligence, say, the collective decision-making and task-performance of honey bees! Nature develops real-time systems, where different groups interact together with feedback loops and eventually converge on the best possible outcomes, based on surveying different combinations of their knowledge, insight, wisdom, and intuition. All the collective intelligence based computing techniques essentially work on this underlying principle. These tools have been utilized to forecast the performance of markets, predict the success of TV serials and movies, and boost the ability of doctors to diagnose diseases and medical conditions, among numerous other functions.

However, it is still a difficult task to build AI with social intelligence because machines continue to struggle with our nuanced social cues that guide group dynamics. They still have a long way to go in terms of replicating our traits like flexibility, grasp of context, and curiosity, to name a few. A report published in February 2020 identified a number of ways in which AI could enhance our collective intelligence. It includes helping us to understand any data in further detail, finding ways so that we can coordinate our decision making in a much better manner, aiding us to overcome our inherent biases and highlighting solutions that we often tend to overlook. However, the study also showed that combining humans with AI technology requires careful design and implementation to avoid unintended consequences. This is one of the factors that make it hard to predict the effectiveness of these systems in uncontrolled conditions (natural world).

Even though our collective intelligence can add a human component to the AI technology, leading to its efficacious decision-making skills, the synergy between the two works best when the machine has more information. This often involves difficult choices regarding the privacy of our data and information. Given the world’s complex multifaceted challenges, such as climate change and pandemics like COVID-19, harnessing our collaborative wisdom coupled with AI/ML (more effectively) is becoming increasingly essential. A good example of this approach is a method developed by the researchers of Carnegie Mellon University that can forecast the spread of SARS-CoV-2 infection in real-time (in the USA). It uses machine learning to combine voluntary symptom surveys, reports of doctors, lab statistics, and Google search trends.

In short, AI/ML can help us utilize our collective intelligence to effectively address the biggest global collective action problems, but the world still needs to do some serious work in this direction so that it can channel this immense power in the best possible ways.

“Can collective intelligence save the planet? It’s the only hope we have.” – Patrick Joseph McGovern, businessman, chairman, and founder of International Data Group

Apeksha Srivastava An avid writer by passion, a researcher by education, and a lover of science, Apeksha Srivastava is a Ph.D. student in HSS - Science Communication at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (India). She has worked as a Senior Project Associate (Writer and Editor) in External Communications at IITGN (2019-20). She has pursued her M.Tech (2016-18) in Biological Engineering from the same Institute, during which she was a Gold Medalist. She was also an Institute Silver Medalist at Amity University (Lucknow, India) from where she completed her B.Tech in Biotechnology. She is actively interested in Science Communication and believes that discussions among researchers and academicians of different disciplines with each other and with the common public will eventually facilitate the advancement of the entire society. She contributes her small bit by writing stories and articles of the latest researches and other hot topics happening in different domains in a format understandable to all.

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