It feels like whenever I cough these days it triggers a mini-panic attack that I promptly try to quash with a steady stream of chamomile tea. Thankfully, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have figured out a way to gauge whether a person has covid-19 just from the sound of their cough, so I may soon get to put my inner hypochondriac to rest.
The tool uses neural networks that can detect the subtle changes in a person’s cough that indicate whether they’re infected, even if they don’t have any other symptoms. Asymptomatic people infected with covid-19 are a vector for the virus that’s particularly tricky to manage, in part because they’re less likely to get tested because, duh, why would they if they’re feeling fine, right? Thus, carriers could infect others without even realizing it.
But even asymptomatic carriers have one tell that shows they’re infected, MIT researchers found. It’s all in the cough.
The difference between a healthy person’s cough and the cough of someone infected with the virus is so slight that it’s imperceptible to the human ear. So the team developed an AI to detect these minute differences using tens of thousands of recorded samples of coughs and spoken words. And it’s been ridiculously accurate in early tests, recognizing 98.5% of coughs from people with confirmed covid-19 cases, and 100% of coughs from asymptomatic people.
Here’s how it works. One neural network gauges sounds associated with vocal cord strength, while another detects cues related to a person’s emotional state, such as frustration, which can produce a “flat affect.” A third network listens for subtle changes in lung and respiratory performance. The team then combined all three models and overlaid them with an algorithm to detect muscular degradation.
Doctors have known for years that a patient’s cough can reveal important clues about their health. Even before pandemic times (God, remember those?), research groups trained AI to detect other diseases like pneumonia and asthma just from the sound.
The research’s not without its limits, though. The MIT scientists warned that, even with the level of accuracy achieved so far, people shouldn’t use this AI as a substitution for getting tested for covid-19. They also stated that it wasn’t built to diagnose people who are actively exhibiting covid-19 symptoms.
However, the technology could still play a vital role as a screening tool for the virus. The team is reportedly developing a free “user-friendly” app that can be used as a convenient prescreening tool for individuals who aren’t showing any symptoms but worry they might be infected.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have been working on a similar app called the COVID Voice Detector that, as the name implies, would be able to determine whether someone has covid-19 just by the sound of their voice. Pretty soon, you could only have to cough or speak into your phone to figure out if it’s safe to hang out with people. Or maybe not even that:
“Pandemics could be a thing of the past if pre-screening tools are always on in the background and constantly improved,” the researchers wrote, hinting at a kind of biological Minority Report scenario that I have no doubt would be a privacy nightmare.
Yeah, that’s going to be a “no” from me. I might be fine with coughing into my phone, but I already have enough covid-related anxiety without the health police swarming me like those yellow-suited dudes from Monster’s Inc. whenever I cough.