Carnegie Mellon University
June 23, 2020

Two Carnegie Mellon AI Projects Addressing COVID-19 Win Funding

By Byron Spice

& Virginia Alvino Young

Proposals Among 26 Awards From Digital Transformation Institute

PITTSBURGH - Researchers in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science who have proposed using artificial intelligence to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic are among the first recipients of funding from the newly created Digital Transformation Institute ( DTI).

Ziv Bar-Joseph and Rayid Ghani

Ziv Bar-Joseph, FORE Systems Professor in the Computational Biology and Machine Learning departments, will head a multi-university effort to model how the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 affects the lungs. These models would be used to identify and develop combinations of drugs that hold the most promise for combating the virus.

Rayid Ghani, Distinguished Career Professor in the Machine Learning Department and the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, will collaborate with researchers at CMU and University of Chicago to study AI and COVID-19 policy. Specifically, they'll develop methods and tools to ensure that the AI and machine learning technologies developed to fight COVID-19 do not further the inequities that disadvantage racial minorities and other vulnerable populations when they're used to inform policy decisions.

The two projects are among 26 approved by DTI, a research consortium established in March by CMU and other leading research universities and national laboratories, including and Microsoft. The consortium aims to use AI to speed the pace of digital transformation in business, government and society. Nine universities now belong to the consortium.

"The enthusiastic response among scientists and researchers coupled with the diverse, high-quality and compelling proposals we’ve received suggests that we have the potential to alter the course of this global pandemic,” said Thomas M. Siebel, CEO of “In the face of this crisis, the institute is proud to bring together the best and brightest minds and provide direction and leadership to support objective analysis and AI-based, data-driven science to mitigate COVID-19."

Bar-Joseph's project will receive $275,000 and involve researchers at MIT and the Boston University School of Medicine. By performing experiments in which they infect lung cells they have previously engineered, the team will develop and validate models that reconstruct the infection pathways of SARS-CoV-2 in the lung and identify key proteins and protein combinations that affect viral loads. The most promising of these models will be used to identify drug targets and to find drug combinations that effectively treat infections while minimizing side effects.

"Beyond the immediate impact on the COVID-19 pandemic, the computational and experimental methods for identifying potential drugs and drug targets that will be developed as part of this project will have a long and lasting impact on society's ability to quickly and effectively respond to future global health crises," Bar-Joseph said.

Ghani, whose project will receive $250,000, noted that racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged already bear the brunt of the pandemic. He and his collaborators will look for ways to use AI to understand, reduce and mitigate such disparities, especially when policymakers use tools such as those for epidemic forecasting, resource allocation and contact tracing.

"I think of our work as an insurance policy against all AI tools that are being developed to support policymakers as part of this effort," Ghani said. "There's a very real risk that if these tools are not developed properly and, more importantly, applied properly, we could make disparities worse."