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Listen to the Sounds of COVID

Mumbai municipal authorities to use AI-based voice analysis tool for COVID-19 – a first in India

We have been reading a lot on how state-of-the-art technological innovations are being employed to reign in the pandemic in the developed countries. But now authorities of an Indian municipal corporation are set to leverage the power of AI for COVID-diagnostic purpose. As part of a pilot project that would include 1000 COVID cases – suspected and confirmed combined – Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) will be using an AI-based voice sampling tool at its COVID facility in Goregaon.

The findings of this pilot initiative will be compared to the standard reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests – considered to be the most conclusive and reliable diagnostic test for COVID-19. If results are similar, the test-run for the new tool would be extended to other government facilities at Mumbai. If proved to be reliable, voice detection methods would offer a quick and cheaper alternative to pathological tests – cutting down testing time and cost – saving lives in the process, as a larger population could be covered under rapid testing programmes. Suresh Kakani, the additional municipal commissioner of BMC summed up the benefits of the new procedure to reporters: “It is non-invasive and can deliver results quickly.”

The RT-PCR test results take about a day to be delivered. Other pathological tests – like the antigen test – takes around 30 minutes. In contrast, the turnaround time for AI-based voice tests is just 30 seconds!

The audio-based tool works on the logic that the timbre of our voice changes in a certain way when affected by specific diseases. Especially since the Coronavirus primarily attacks the respiratory tract and the lungs, changes would certainly happen to the voice of the infected person. Scientists maintain that each human voice contains 6,300 distinct parameters – so there are a lot of reference points to compare if one can come up with the right instrument to do the job. The person being tested is made to speak into the microphone of a smartphone or computer which hosts the AI-based voice analysis tool. The back-end AI algorithm of the tool compares the input voice sample with a database that has been trained on a large data set of voice samples collected from confirmed COVID patients. The analysis is done, and voice report generated, in about 30 seconds.

Many scientists are still critical of the initiative. Most feel this will be throwing up a lot of false positives. That isn’t really a threat, because BMC will follow up voice reports with the standard RT-PCR test for now. But it is worth a try, because if successful, this will cut down on both cost and time. Several advanced countries are working on such technological innovations and it is indeed heart-warming to see a local government body making similar attempts.

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