A year of local AI breakthroughs in the fight against COVID-19

How The City and Peninsula organized the artificial intelligence response to the pandemic

Artificial intelligence has been used to predict the spread of COVID-19, to predict how treatments will work on patients and to search vast data sets for clues to drugs and vaccines.

The problem hasn’t been too little research. The challenge has been where the world can share data and research to find the best collaborative ways to fight a global pandemic. And in 2021, that central hub of AI was the Bay Area.

With world-class educational and research institutions, big tech companies and a startup ecosystem, the Bay Area was uniquely prepared to help organize a world of COVID research, experts say.

“By all measures, the Bay Area – including both the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas – now reigns as the nation’s dominant center for both AI research and commercialization activities,” the Brookings Institution think tank wrote in September. “The Bay Area agglomeration is the nation’s ‘superstar’ hub.” And Forbes called the Bay Area “far and away the lone U.S. leader in AI,” and found 37 of its top 50 AI companies based here.

Those resources were needed to manage what Stanford researchers called a flood of studies early in the pandemic. “There is an urgent need to balance the rapid dissemination of evidence to guide clinical decision-making with unbiased, high-quality models,” researchers wrote.

University of California at San Francisco researchers helped to create a framework for the incoming research. UCSF researchers broke new ground with global scientists on how to train artificial intelligence models with data from multiple sources, and worked with big tech companies on how to automatically share COVID-19 patient data while protecting privacy. UCSF teams also built a set of protocols for how AI can be used to identify COVID-19 in chest X-rays around the world.

Redwood City’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, supported cutting-edge COVID-19 research around the world with its CZ Biohub facility. And late in 2021, CZI announced a $3 billion, 10-year project to fund AI and other technology in bio-medical research.

Those efforts didn’t cure COVID-19, but did build on research that will continue into the future, experts say.

“AI stepped up to address COVID-19, but it’s a reminder that AI can help, but not necessarily solve a big problem,” Michael Chui, lead author of the McKinsey Global Institute’s State of AI 2021 report told The Examiner. “Those things don’t happen overnight.”

Chui, who is based in McKinsey’s Financial District offices, added the Bay Area’s response to COVID-19 contributed to the ongoing evolution of AI: “The Bay Area is the epicenter of AI, with companies and educational institutions that play a huge role.”

One of those companies is Databricks, a 3,000-person, $38 billion company with headquarters near Salesforce Park in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Databricks is built on open-source software with a focus on data-sharing. The company, led by Berkeley Ph.D Ali Ghodsi, provided free tools and access to big data for the fight against COVID.

Ghodsi believes 2021’s breakthroughs are just the start of an AI revolution.

“I think we’re just at the beginning of this,” he said. “In the next five years, there will be even more smart technology around us and it’ll be more intelligent than ever, thanks to the power of data and AI.”

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