People have COVID-19 questions, free AI service has answers

A tech giant is offering a free hand to healthcare experts working in various fields—academia, government, healthcare delivery—that could be tapping tireless AI rather than overworked humans to answer questions from the general public on COVID-19.

The Big Tech player is IBM. The project is “IBM Watson Assistant for Citizens.” And the automated Q&A service will be offered to communities served by IBM clients, including initial setup, in the above-mentioned fields at no charge for at least 90 days.

In an announcement, the company says the “Citizens” answering technology incorporates data from CDC guidance documents as well as news and information from state websites on COVID-related matters like school closings and other local effects. The software can be tailored to 13 languages, although the initial rollout will be limited to English and Spanish.

The program works by supplying automated responses to questions submitted over the phone or by text messaging such as “What are the symptoms?” and “How do I protect myself?”

IBM says it’s already delivering the service across the U.S. while also reaching out to organizations as far-flung as the Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain and the U.K.

IBM client Brian Pokorny, director of IT in Otsego County, New York, says he expects the service to be help alleviate call center volume, allowing county employees to dedicate efforts elsewhere.