When covid-19 struck Europe in March 2020, hospitals were plunged into a health crisis that was still badly understood. “Doctors really didn’t have a clue how to manage these patients,” says Laure Wynants, an epidemiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who studies predictive tools.
But there was data coming out of China, which had a four-month head start in the race to beat the pandemic. If machine-learning algorithms could be trained on that data to help doctors understand what they were seeing and make decisions, it just might save lives. “I thought, ‘If there’s any time that AI could prove its usefulness, it’s now,’” says Wynants. “I had my hopes up.”
It never happened—but not for lack of effort. Research teams around the world stepped up to help. The AI community, in particular, rushed to develop software that many believed would allow hospitals to diagnose or triage patients faster, bringing much-needed support to the front lines—in theory.
In the end, many hundreds of predictive tools were developed. None of them made a real difference, and some were potentially harmful.
That’s the damning conclusion of multiple studies published in the last few months. In June, the Turing Institute, the UK’s national center for data science and AI, put out a report summing up discussions at a series of workshops it held in late 2020. The clear consensus was that AI tools had made little, if any, impact in the fight against covid.
This echoes the results of two major studies that assessed hundreds of predictive tools developed last year. Wynants is lead author of one of them, a review in the British Medical Journal that is still being updated as new tools are released and existing ones tested. She and her colleagues have looked at 232 algorithms for diagnosing patients or predicting how sick those with the disease might get. They found that none of them were fit for clinical use. Just two have been singled out as being promising enough for future testing.
“It’s shocking,” says Wynants. “I went into it with some worries, but this exceeded my fears.” [Continue reading…]