Coronavirus app finally launches in England

Highly anticipated: previous trials of a UK contact tracing app were scrapped in June. © Twitter

Will AI replace doctors? Inspired by the pandemic, scientists are creating new medical technologies at a faster rate than ever. Now, some believe that human doctors may one day be obsolete.

For months, politicians and scientists have urged people all over the world to put their lives on hold and change their behaviour to stop the spread of a deadly disease: stop going to school, wear a mask, stay two metres away from others.

Now, for people in England and Wales, one more action has been added to the coronavirus to-do list: download a new contact tracing app.

The NHS Covid-19 app, launched on Thursday four months behind schedule, instructs the user to self-isolate for 14 days if it detects someone nearby who has the virus, provides a risk score based on location and even includes a self-isolation countdown clock.

As UK cases rise dramatically, officials are hoping that a sense of civic duty could prevent a second lockdown. As a new TV campaign urged over-16s to “Protect your loved ones. Get the App,” the app shot to the top of the UK’s download charts, beating Zoom and even TikTok.

The UK is far from the only country to look to smartphones to control the virus. Singapore led the way, launching the first coronavirus app, TraceTogether, in March. It was followed by Immuni in Italy, CovidSafe in Australia and the Corona-Warn-App in Germany.

It is not just contact tracing – the pandemic has sparked hundreds of new innovations worldwide. Only this month, researchers developed another new app –- the “Coughvid” app – that uses AI to listen to your cough and tell you whether you have coronavirus.

For years, computer experts have predicted that AI could revolutionise healthcare. Now that revolution is happening in months, not decades. Today, some doctors are wondering if AI will replace them altogether.

Their fears may not be unfounded: in 2017, a robot passed China’s national medical exam, exceeding the minimum required by an astonishing 96 points.

As early as 2016, “People should stop training radiologists now,” asserted Professor Geoffrey Hinton – a Google researcher known as “the godfather of deep learning”. Furthermore, it was “completely obvious” he added, that within five years AI would be able to diagnose illnesses more accurately than humans.

In January this year, one report found that mobile health apps can perform 9 out of 12 routine tasks normally carried out by doctors, including taking medical history and even examining the patient.

This may be impressive, but the report’s conclusion was clear: apps cannot replace GPs. Being a doctor requires practical skills and crucially, empathy. A robot may be able to tell a patient they are ill, but it cannot yet perform the Heimlich manoeuvre or comfort them when they are crying.

Studies show that patients are not yet ready to trust AI. When 200 American students were offered a stress-level assessment, 40% signed up to see a doctor, but only 26% signed up to see a computer.

And at an AI conference in London last June, one doctor called for a new Hippocratic Oath for the modern age, saying “medicine is not just algorithms, there is a lot of humanity and emotions that goes into an interaction”.

So, will AI replace doctors?


Yes, say some. We are living in the robot age, and doctors are not immune. AI is taking over the roles of more and more medical professionals, such as the UK NHS nurses replaced by chatbots, and doing a better job than humans ever could. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic sparking new scientific research, AI programs may replace doctors even sooner than originally predicted.

No, say others. AI may be a useful tool, but we still need human doctors to help patients make medical decisions and care for their emotional well-being. Healthcare apps may be growing in popularity, but not they are not universally accessible: for example, 75% of Indian adults do not have a smartphone,. AI is an exciting new field – but it should exist to help doctors, not replace them.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be cared for by a human doctor or a robot doctor?
  2. Should owners of smartphones be compelled to download the coronavirus contact tracing app?


  1. Imagine you have just been examined by an AI doctor for the first time. Write a diary entry describing the experience.
  2. What area of your life would you most like to be revolutionised by a new form of Artificial Intelligence, and why? Compare your answer with your classmates.

Some People Say...

“As more and more artificial intelligence is entering into the world, more and more emotional intelligence must enter into leadership.”

Amit Ray, Indian author and pioneer of the compassionate AI movement

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that when it comes to diagnosing illnesses, artificial intelligence is fast overtaking the capabilities of human doctors. Scientists have developed smartphone apps to detect skin cancer and algorithms that can identify eye diseases. One study published in 2019 found that an AI system fed data from 600,000 hospital patients was more than 90% accurate at diagnosing asthma, while doctors averaged between 80% and 94%.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether new AI innovations are actually helping or harming patients. When South Korea began offering thyroid ultrasounds as part of cancer screening, the number of people being diagnosed with thyroid cancer skyrocketed. Roughly 400 people die of thyroid cancer each year in South Korea, but the screening diagnosed 400,000 cases. Although most were never in any danger, they nevertheless had to endure unnecessary treatments and stress.

Word Watch

The National Health Service, the publicly funded healthcare system in the UK. The NHS was founded in 1948.
Civic duty
A responsibility expected of all members of society. If contact tracing apps are to work on a large scale, they must be downloaded by a significant proportion of society. Italy’s app has only been downloaded by 4.2 million people, falling far short of government targets.
Artificial Intelligence. AI describes a computer or computer-controlled robot’s ability to perform tasks normally associated with intelligent beings. It is estimated that AI will contribute more than $15 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
Deep learning
A form of AI that mimics the human brain. Professor Hinton works for Google Brain, Google’s deep-learning AI research team.
General Practitioners, a British term for doctors who work in the community to treat patients with minor illnesses and refer seriously ill people to hospital specialists. Health apps cannot perform medical procedures, talk to other doctors or work as a team.
Heimlich manoeuvre
A first aid procedure used to help people who are choking. It was discovered by American doctor Henry Heimlich, who, aged 96, used it on a fellow resident at his retirement home in 2016.
Researchers say patients do not trust AI because they regard their health problems are unique, and believe that algorithms cannot assess them accurately.
Hippocratic Oath
An ancient Greek ethical code for doctors still used by many medics today. In his new oath, Dr Jordan Shlain focuses on patient data and making medical language more accessible.

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