It is now readily acknowledged that China, through a series of unprecedented and restrictive public health and quarantine measures ‘bought the world some time’ in the global fight against Covid-19.

Most of those actions would not have been possible in western democracies, relying as they did for their implementation on the authoritarian nature of the Chinese state.

Then there are the heroic efforts of people like 34 year old Dr Li Wenliang, who died on February 7, sometime after he tried to alert his medical colleagues of the dangers that were emerging and for which he was censored by the Chinese authorities.

However, let us leave aside for now the repugnant actions of the Chinese government toward certain individuals.

Because what has been of critical importance in combatting and reducing the rate of global infection is China’s capacity to utilise a sophisticated and advanced network of medical and scanning tools from the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Although it has to be said that clear warnings about the novel coronavirus spreading beyond China were first raised by AI systems in the United States, more than a week before official information about the epidemic was released by international organisations.

As reported by the Associated Press, the first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan.”

We also know that staff in the radiology department of Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan are using artificial intelligence software to detect visual signs of the pneumonia associated with Covid-19 on images from lung CT scans.

So, that’s China. But what about Ireland?

How prepared are we in terms of the ability to deploy AI based medical technology, or any AI technology for that matter?

The answer is not very encouraging in terms of Ireland having anything like a developed AI strategy capable of responding to an emergency on the scale of the Covid-19 crisis.

Of course, that does not mean that we cannot or will not be able to utilise AI medical technology from other states.

And in fairness, there are plenty of individual examples of how AI has assisted the Irish health service.

These range from the MARIO Project, which is an assistive robot that helps people with severe dementia, and which was trialled here in Ireland, the UK and Italy; to the proposed rollout of new-born screening technology in our Maternity Hospital network.

But even here, the challenges we face are substantial. As Richard Corbridge, chief executive of eHealth Ireland pointed out last year:

“We are still the last ‘first world’ country not to have a national electronic health record (EHR) in place, yet we are way ahead in other areas, like DNA genome sequencing.”

What we know for now is that much of Ireland’s approach to AI has centred around future proofing employment and job creation.

In fact, Future Jobs Ireland 2019, which was published in March 2018, includes a commitment to develop a National AI Strategy for Ireland.

From the government’s perspective, it is expected that the Strategy will set out how Ireland plans to “engage with the dynamic advances in AI technologies and systems, building on the country’s existing ecosystem and capabilities.”

That is all fine-but it will be some time before we see the effects of this in the wider society.

We know this because it was only in March 2019, that €15.5 million in dedicated funding was announced for PhD and research master’s enrolment through new six centres for researcher training.
These centres are set to train 700 postgraduate students will also be the subject of an investment of over €100 million from the Government and will focus on areas like machine learning, digitally enhanced reality, advanced networks for sustainable societies, foundations of data science and artificial intelligence.

The problem in the immediate term is that this is only going to happen over an eight-year period.
Another significant hurdle which Ireland will have to face in terms of rolling out AI systems capable of responding in the way China did revolves around data protection concerns and the individual’s right to control or shape how the state retains personal data.

This is because so much of AI technology requires vast data inputs on every aspect of personal behaviour, movements, preferences etc.

Clearly, personal privacy rights are not top of the agenda in China, unlike here or in most western states (at least in theory).

Ultimately, Covid-19 may challenges us to re-evaluate how much priority we wish to continue giving to these issues.

As Bernard Marr  has highlighted in Forbes, China’s sophisticated surveillance system used facial recognition technology and temperature detection software to identify people who might have a fever and be more likely to have the virus.

Are we willing to entrust such wide ranging powers to the Irish state? Or do we believe that even slowing down a pandemic is not worth the sacrifice in terms of personal liberties and the expansion of the states reach into our personal lives?