One of China’s leading disease control experts has said that that AI could play a larger role in managing future outbreaks in China, particularly in allocating scarce medical resources and identifying early signs of an epidemic.

Why it matters: At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in China, hospitals around the country faced medical equipment shortages. Medical institutions appealed to the public for donations to fill the gaps left by the government.

  • Chinese officials have been criticized for ignoring warning signs in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, despite evidence of community transmission early in the outbreak.
  • The country has set goals to become a global frontrunner in AI by 2030, surpassing the US and countries in Europe.

Details: China should use big data to build an AI-based early warning system that can identify threats like Covid-19, Zhang Wenhong, director of the infectious disease department at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital, said at the opening of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference on Thursday.

  • The disease expert said that if AI had been able to identify hallmark features of the virus in December, the medical community may have been able to sound the alarm earlier.
  • Nevertheless, Zhang said that data siloing in hospitals will pose a challenge to AI systems.
  • In dealing with Covid-19, China imposed measures that effectively locked down more than 60 million people. Instead of AI, Zhang attributed China’s ability to control the virus to “traditional wisdom and solid urban management.”
  • Zhang also said that in the future, AI’s role in resource allocation should be expanded.
  • “When we sent our medical team to Wuhan we hoped that AI had been deployed across the country to know what we had and what was lacking in Wuhan. This was not the case,” he said.

Context: Zhang became a popular figure during the Covid-19 outbreak in China, leading Shanghai’s offensive against the disease and providing guidance to cities around the country.

  • The doctor rose to fame in late January after telling the media that he had assigned doctors who were also Communist Party members to work on the front lines in Shanghai.
  • Zhang has since become a well-respected figure in the fight against Covid-19, known for his straight talk and outspoken views on the outbreak.

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.