Microsoft Is Powering the CDC’s Coronavirus Assessment Bot

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is putting Microsoft’s artificial intelligence capabilities to potentially life-or-death use.

The health agency tapped the computer giant’s technology to build a chatbot, called Clara, that asks potential coronavirus patients a series of questions in hopes of screening whether or not they are suffering from symptoms of COVID-19, assessing risk factors and disseminating relevant information. The bot is built on Microsoft Azure’s Healthcare Bot service, a virtual AI-powered medical assistant already in use at major hospitals across the U.S.

It’s one of several chatbot portals that healthcare providers across the country have quickly rolled out in hopes of weeding out patients who are not in dire need of testing and reducing risk to frontline workers. But a recent analysis of eight of these chatbots from medical trade Stat News found that the advice they dispensed can vary widely, particularly as tech companies rush new COVID-19-specific products onto the market.

Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot was first developed as a research project in 2017 and became widely available to others in early 2019. It seeks to communicate with patients in conversational natural language and can be customized to the needs of a particular organization or integrated with hospital medical records.

The need to test anyone with cold- or flu-like symptoms creates “a bottleneck that threatens to overwhelm health systems coping with the crisis,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. The company hopes that the bot will “free up doctors, nurses, administrators and other healthcare professionals to provide critical care to those who need it.”

Screenshots of the Clara chatbot interacting with people


Microsoft is also making a set of assessment bot templates available for organizations to use or modify to better serve their own audiences, including a risk evaluator, one that dispenses up-to-date FAQs and one that provides worldwide metrics. The company claims to be fielding more than 1 million messages per day from people concerned about coronavirus across all of the versions of its Healthcare Bot at various hospitals and public health agencies.

While the field of AI that powers chatbots, natural language processing, is currently in the midst of a transformation due to research breakthroughs, many of them backed by Microsoft, bots that can wholly generate dialogue on their own are far from ready for commercial use. Like Clara, most of the chatbots currently on the market are based on a more straightforward automation and maps of yes/no questions.

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