On March 9, the same day that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposed a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of COVID-19, artificial intelligence firm Expert System announced a software platform that can help authorities find evidence of COVID-19 outbreaks before they spiral out of control. The Modena, Italy-based company formerly built an AI tool that scans vast troves of data to identify national security threats — but quickly pivoted in the face of a biological threat spreading throughout the country.
Initially funded by the Australian and Canadian governments, Expert System’s Medical Intelligence Platform uses its AI technology to search through hundreds of millions of documents — from social media posts to hospital data and emergency call logs — to immediately identify worrying trends.
“If 50 people in Baltimore post on Twitter on the same day, saying they have a fever and have been coughing for two days, shouldn’t we look into it?” says Andrea Melegari, Expert System’s senior executive vice president of defense, intelligence and security. “We can no longer afford not to.”
Founded by three computer science grads in a Modena garage in 1989, the small publicly-traded company got its first big break five years later when it sold its grammar-checking software Errata Corrige to Microsoft, which incorporated it into the Italian version of Word. It has since carved out a niche specializing in natural language processing, offering products that analyze large amounts of text and then pull out the relevant information based on context; the algorithms continuously improve through machine learning and help clients automate repetitive tasks. Customers of its Cogito AI suite range from Dow Jones and 3M, to Lloyd’s of London and U.S. federal agencies such as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
The firm went public on the Milan stock exchange in 2014 and now has a market capitalization of $115 million, 250 employees and offers products in 14 languages. Its three cofounders — CEO Stefano Spaggiari, president and chief technology officer Marco Varone and board member Paolo Lombardi — remain the largest individual shareholders, with each owning about 7% of the company’s stock. Expert System ended 2019 with revenues of $34 million — up 10% from 2018 — and a net loss of about $1.1 million.
While Expert System’s traditional lines of business have remained strong through the economic downturn — about 40% of revenues come from information intelligence services provided to corporations and government agencies — the firm views its new Medical Intelligence Platform as a game-changer. When the coronavirus first emerged, national responses were delayed because governments didn’t become aware of the scale of the problem until it had already infected a large number of people. Expert System’s platform provides decision-makers with instant access to emerging patterns — such as a surge in social media posts citing symptoms of the flu, combined with a spike in emergency calls for breathing difficulties — that could indicate a new outbreak before it occurs.
There is some evidence of this already: Researchers in Xi’an, China published a study in February showing that the term “SARS” began trending on the Chinese messaging app WeChat at least two weeks before the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Wuhan. “We can use this now to understand what’s going on, but it’s mainly for prevention,” says Melegari. “We need to be more attentive. We need to search for everything that’s happening in the same place, at the same time, with the same symptoms.”
Expert System is also offering 90 days’ free use of its Clinical Research Navigator program, which searches a database of more than 165 million medical records and journals, to researchers fighting COVID-19. An unnamed U.S. federal agency decided to implement the platform after a demonstration that lasted less than half an hour, per Melegari. The company is also working with the New England Journal of Medicine to enlarge the platform’s library of medical data, and inked a new partnership with Amazon Web Services to expand access to the tool by hosting it on the tech giant’s servers.
So far, Melegari says the company has received multiple requests from governments interested in using the new Medical Intelligence Platform, and the firm has presented bids for contracts underway in France and Italy. Its developers have added features analyzing the social and economic impacts of the virus, including weekly reports on how social media users are feeling about the pandemic.
“We’re worried that five years down the line, something like a COVID-25 might appear,” says Melegari. “We need to prevent that from happening.”