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Montreal computer scientists expect to launch contact-tracing app in less than a week

Yoshua Bengio at his home in Montreal in November 2016. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes
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An early version of an AI-powered app designed by one of Canada’s most prominent computer scientists, which uses artificial intelligence to trace people’s movements and warn them if they’ve come into contact with someone with COVID-19, will be launched in less than a week, The Logic has learned. Both the federal and Quebec governments are considering adopting the app as part of their efforts to combat the pandemic. 

Co-developed by Yoshua Bengio, the scientific director of Montreal’s Mila institute, the app creates a profile based on a user’s movements and encounters, then shares that information with nearby phones to gauge their users’ respective infection risks.

Talking Point

Mila scientific director Yoshua Bengio’s AI-powered app, which traces people’s movements and warns them if they’ve come into contact with someone with COVID-19, will launch in less than one week. The federal and Quebec governments are in talks with Bengio’s group to promote the app to mitigate the dangers of returning to work before a vaccine is available.

Bengio hopes the as-yet-unnamed app will mitigate what he and his co-developer, tech entrepreneur Vargha Moayed, call the “brutal and economically damaging” practice of complete social distancing, helping people get back to work before a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out. “[We are] about [one] week from a phase 1 deployment,” Bengio said in an interview with The Logic, adding that the app would be updated every subsequent week.

Mila is in discussions with the Quebec and federal governments to help finance and promote the app, according to Mila spokesperson Vincent Martineau. “There are currently exchanges with MILA, in which Quebec’s economic ministry is participating,” said Quebec government spokesperson Jean-Pierre D’Auteuil, noting that “many other ministries were also involved.”

A member of Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’s office, speaking on background because of the sensitive nature of the talks, said the ministry has been in close contact with Bengio and his team as part of a “whole of government approach” as to the feasibility of the app and the potential partnership with Mila. 

During a March 24 press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to rule out the federal government’s potential use of anonymized location data to track compliance with social-distancing rules, saying, “All options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.” In a press conference Tuesday night, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said his province will use smartphone apps and other technology to enforce quarantine orders “when appropriate.” Representatives of the Alberta government did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment before publication.

Bengio and Moayed’s app works as a sort of COVID-19 roadmap, helping its users navigate around higher-risk people and locations. Once a user has created their profile, it is shared via Bluetooth with anyone within 10 metres of that person’s phone. The app would at once suggest activities based on the user’s risk profile, like washing hands more often or staying at home, and inform the user about people or places that carry a higher risk of infection. Medical professionals would be able to upload users’ encrypted COVID-19 test results to their phones.

“To avoid stigma and protect privacy you would not know if you are crossing paths with an infected person,” Bengio said via email. “The crucial point is that it would allow [us] to focus stronger confinement on the most at-risk people and make it easier for those less at risk to go back to activities outside, work, etc, until they cross paths with high-risk people (which would then tell them to stay home, etc).” He believes an app-based contact-tracing effort will help establish “the best trade-off’ between keeping people healthy and getting the economy back on track as quickly as possible.

In a post on Bengio’s personal website, he and Moayed said there would be “social pressure” to use the app, as it would facilitate a faster return to normal life. The pair also said “an unprecedented solidarity effort” on the part of government or industry to provide cheap smartphones to those who don’t have them was “imaginable.”

Bengio, the 2018 recipient of the A.M. Turing Award for major contributions of lasting importance to computing, is bullish on the app’s potential to combat the pandemic. 

If 60% of the population uses the app (and follows the recommendation) it would basically be enough to wipe out the virus,” Bengio told The Logic. “Smaller numbers would also have an effect so it is not a threshold but the more the better.”

There are indications that so-called digital contact-tracing apps are effective in preventing the virus’s spread. A recent University of Oxford study credited China’s use of such an app for contributing to the “sustained epidemic suppression” following the outbreak in Wuhan. (China was also aggressive in deploying other containment strategies, including forcing those it suspected might be carrying the virus into quarantine centres. On Tuesday, the country reported no new COVID-related deaths for the first time since its government began publishing a daily tally in January.)

“The intention is not to impose the technology as a permanent change to society, but we believe … under these pandemic circumstances it is necessary and justified to protect public health,” the authors of the Oxford study wrote.

On Wednesday, European researchers unveiled the code for an app-based contact-tracing effort that will also use anonymized, aggregated data and Bluetooth to monitor people’s proximity and alert those who may have come in contact with a COVID-19 carrier. Individual European countries plan to develop apps based on the standard that will be interoperable.

Bengio’s isn’t the only Canadian team developing app-based tools to fight the spread of COVID-19. Quebec-based Optel Group and Ontario’s ViralMe have registered with the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, while NexJ Health has registered with Ontario’s lobbying registration. All three companies are promoting tracking and tracing apps. 

“We threw this together literally in two weeks, we’re filing IP and we have a working beta,” ViralMe founder Christopher Hough said. ViralMe is seeking $5 million from both Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund and the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization to get the app working within four weeks. Hough said he’s spoken to senior executives at “Canada’s largest telecom company” to both sponsor and host the app on its cloud platform.

Quebec City-based Optel’s AI-powered app is “ready to go,” according to president Louis Roy. The company, which specializes in supply chain traceability, is also registered on Quebec’s  lobbyist registry, and is seeking deployment costs and eventual consulting fees. “We aren’t looking to make a profit,” Roy said.

Some 500 Ontarians have already downloaded NexJ Health’s COVID-19 app, including some cancer patients who were already using the Toronto-based company’s health management platform, according to company vice-president Janine Tatham. The app similarly uses AI to mitigate risk, and can track a user’s temperature and symptoms as well as communicate with the individual to determine whether they should seek medical attention. “We’ve proposed to the [Ontario] government that we can go down to about a dollar a user for the program,” said Tatham.  

At least one expert questions the efficacy of an app that is both voluntary and relies largely on self-reporting. “As we try to return to normal, there’s going to be such an incentive for people to game the app,” said Teresa Scassa, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “You have to get back to work and support your family. Are you going to be telling an app that you have a cough?”

Others still highlight the privacy concerns of using app-based digital contact tracing. “The apps can help you report, generate data without your involvement, or lift data from your device. The apps can store the data locally or send the data to servers. And they can leak data to analytics firms and social media platforms,” reads a briefing on COVID-19 apps from U.K.-based Privacy International.

The data used to train the Mila app’s AI-powered predictor will be anonymized, delocalized and stored in a centralized database, while geographical data won’t be collected. “We want to avoid creating tools which can later be abused by governments and companies to track us and control us,” Bengio and Moayed wrote

In his interview with The Logic, Bengio was more nuanced on the subject of privacy. “At this point, I would lean towards very strong privacy protections and see how much we can reduce the growth of the virus and exploit these technologies to gradually return to productive activities,” he said. “If that does not work governments and populations will be in front of tougher choices.”

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