Artificial Intelligence in the Covid Frontline

Tech giants such as Google and Amazon have been an obvious way for investors to tap into the AI boom, but there is more to the sector than self-driving cars

James Gard 18 May, 2020 | 12:29AM
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Coronavirus app

From chatbots to Amazon Alexa, artificial intelligence has become a normal part of everyday life that we now take for granted. But now in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it is being used to save lives.

AI, for example, is at the heart of the NHS “track and trace” app, which is being trialled in the Isle of Wight before a nationwide rollout. Users of the service input their symptoms into a smartphone, then an algorithm looks at who they’ve had contact with and alerts them to the potential risks of catching or spreading the virus.

For Chris Ford, manager of the Smith & Williamson Artificial Intelligence fund, this is a pivotal moment for AI, especially as we are now willing to share our data with the government for the greater good. He argues that the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the “cultural acceptance of AI’s role in our lives”, from the sudden and widespread use of telemedicine to the use of computers for speedy diagnosis and the search for a vaccine. There’s a “renewed focus and vigour that has been absent before” in how we approach AI, he says.

What is AI?

But there are misunderstandings about what AI is. Defined by Stanford University as the “science and engineering of making intelligent machines”, it is now seeping into so many aspects of our lives that a complete definition it is hard to pin down. There is also confusion whether it is good for us, with negative perceptions of "robots taking human jobs" balanced by medical breakthroughs such as discovering new antibiotics and robotic surgery.

Robotics and automation are boom areas of AI – the iShares Automation and Robotics ETF (RBOT) has over $2 billion in assets – but they are not the game in town, says S&W's Ford. “Not all robotics have artificial intelligence, and not all AI platforms are robotic,” he says. For investors it’s been relatively easy to ride the trend by backing big tech firms like Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL) and Google parent company Alphabet (GOOGL), which have invested billions in AI in its many forms.

Many of the pioneers in AI are not on the radar of retail investors, but their work will have a profound impact on our lives. One such area is autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, which Google and Tesla (TSLA) are backing to be the next game-changing technology. With 1.3 million people losing their lives in traffic accidents worldwide every year, 90% of which are down to human error, there is clearly scope for technology to drive better than us. AI has come a long way in recent years in the field of image recognition, which teaches cars how to assess and react to certain hazards.

“Image recognition was arguably the most impactful first-wave application of AI technology,” argues Xuesong Zhao, manager of the Polar Capital Automation and Artificial Intelligence fund. Tom Riley, co-manager of the Neutral-rated Axa Framlington Robotech fund agrees, saying that vision systems have come on leaps and bounds recently. He holds Japan’s Keyence (6861), which develops manufactures automation sensors and vision systems used in the automotive industry. As the dominant player in the machine vision market, the company has a narrow moat from Morningstar analysts.

Hands-Off, Eyes-Off Driving

Modern cars already have some element of AI, particularly in hazard awareness and automatic parking, but Riley says drivers are not  yetready for the full “hands-off, eyes-off” autonomous driving experience. Still, S&W's Ford argues that fully autonomous vehicles may become mainstream sooner than we think, say five to 10 years time, rather than 20.

Some of AI’s most high-profile wins to date have been in the medical sphere, and that is where many fund managers are focused. Robots are now routinely used alongside surgeons and Nasdaq-listed Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) makes “Da Vinci” robots that perform millions of surgical operations every year. The company is the fourth largest holding in the Axa fund.. Axa’s Riley has positioned around 20% of the fund into the healthcare sector because he thinks it provides useful diversification away from the tech giants.

Ford also owns US firm iRhythm (IRTC), which uses an AI platform to warn people that they are at risk of cardiac arrhythmia, irregular heart movements that can potentially be fatal. He cites this as an example of AI's strength in capturing large amounts of real-time data and improving how it interprets the information.

What's the Next Frontier?

Away from robotic surgery and self-driving cars, where else do fund managers see future opportunities? Polar Capital’s Xuesong thinks “natural language processing” (NLP) is likely to be the next growth area for AI, although not without its challenges. He thinks that teaching computers to read and analyse documents “would be truly transformational in many industries”. He cites legal, financial and insurance companies as some of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend in the coming years. For example, complex fraud trials often involve millions of documents – having a computer to sift through them would speed up the legal proceedings and keep costs down.

Ford, meanwhile, thinks industries such as mining and oil, which have so far been late adopters of AI, could start to change, and also expects greater use of AI in education. That trend could be accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, where schools and universities have been forced to go virtual in the lockdown. AI, then, could be a natural next step for students to work semi-independently with tailored curriculums.

“AI is only as good as the data on which it stands,” Ford says. And with younger people less reticent to share their data than older tech users, AI is only going to improve in the coming years.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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James Gard  is content editor for