Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Thursday, October 29, 2020
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DoD’s Early Warning System Targets New Enemy: COVID-19 

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Amber I. Smith

Artificial intelligence technology has been enlisted in a Defense Department research effort to develop an early warning system for identifying infectious diseases.

Recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the confined quarters of U.S. Navy ships illustrate the scale of the problem and the need for an intelligent system that can spot the early signs of infection and community spread within tight-knit military units.

A prototype system is being developed as an application within a DoD platform called Rapid Analysis of Threat Exposure, or RATE. The AI-based system will undergo clinical trials involving both military and non-military personnel, the Pentagon said this week. Researchers will use wearable devices to track biomarkers in an attempt to identify pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic subjects.

The RATE project is being overseen by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Defense Innovation Unit (DUI). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also funding the disease-tracking effort. The defense agencies are working with contractor Philips North America to advance the AI-based COVID tracker.

Researchers discovered that exposure to infectious agents causes subtle physiological changes before symptoms appear. RATE would focus on those biomarkers.

The defense agencies are working North American Philips to develop the warning system. The company, which specializes in healthcare systems, said potential RATE applications include the ability to detect when military personal are exhibiting signs of infection and illness, including COVID-19, then isolating individuals before the infection spreads within a unit.

“By combining commercial technology, a rich data source and simple to use wearables, we are effectively providing a check-engine light on the military service member and getting that alert before they’re broken down with a disease," said Christian Whitchurch, director of DIU’s Human Systems Portfolio. "In military speak, we’re targeting left-of-cough awareness.”

DIU has accelerated the U.S. military’s embrace of commercial technologies. RATE is the latest example, using off-the-shelf wearable devices to measure biomarkers. Those data will be processed in the cloud as a software service that allows users to track their hourly RATE score.

“The RATE science shows that physiological response to infection has similarities acrossdifferent types of infectious agents, and we anticipate that this will also apply to RATE-COVID,” said Dr. Joe Frassica, chief medical officer and head of Philips Research North America.

“As we continue to get new data from monitored cases of COVID-19, we will be able to refine the RATE-COVID algorithm in the near future. We hope that this will not only allow us to protect people from contracting the disease, but to also intervene early and treat those who are infected,” Frassica added.

The defense agencies said the RATE system was deployed in U.S. military units beginning in June. The trial is expected to expand to several thousand participants in the next several weeks.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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