But how much has AI really helped in tackling the current outbreak? That’s a hard question to answer. Companies like BlueDot are typically tight-lipped about exactly who they provide information to and how it is used. And human teams say they spotted the outbreak the same day as the AIs. Other projects in which AI is being explored as a diagnostic tool or used to help find a vaccine are still in their very early stages. Even if they are successful, it will take time—possibly months—to get those innovations into the hands of the health-care workers who need them.
The hype outstrips the reality. In fact, the narrative that has appeared in many news reports and breathless press releases—that AI is a powerful new weapon against diseases—is only partly true and risks becoming counterproductive. For example, too much confidence in AI’s capabilities could lead to ill-informed decisions that funnel public money to unproven AI companies at the expense of proven interventions such as drug programs. It’s also bad for the field itself: overblown but disappointed expectations have led to a crash of interest in AI, and consequent loss of funding, more than once in the past.