Dozens of teams are competing to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to solving serious social problems in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE. A relatively late entry is Zzapp Malaria, which is working to eradicate one of humanity’s most persistent diseases. The company was recently named as one of the current top 10 teams in the multiyear XPRIZE competition, at the NeuIPS conference.
In 2017, more than 219 million people were infected with malaria, and more than 435,000 people in Africa died from the mosquito-borne disease. Pregnant women and children under five were most of the fatalities.
Israel-based Zzapp Malaria is working to use AI to analyze satellite data and online databases and optimize localized responses such as spraying pesticides.
Robotics Business Review recently spoke with Zzapp Malaria co-founders Arnon Houri Yafin and Ari Eichler about their efforts. Houri-Yafin is also CEO of the organization, which joined the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE contest as a “wild card” team.
Precision required in fighting disease
“Malaria can be eliminated, and it has been in many countries,” said Houri Yafin. “In order to do so, operations have to be perfect, both in terms of not missing any house or water body, as well as in terms of tailoring the intervention strategy to the particular village or town, the spraying techniques and materials, the season, the duration, etc.”
“Malaria could be eliminated, but you’d need a perfect operation,” Houri-Yafin said. “You can’t miss any water bodies [with pesticides].”
“Zzapp Malaria customizes solutions to villages,” said Eichler. “We decided to develop a system to help workers find every water body, to aid in decision-making on where to apply and when.”
Zzapp Malaria builds AI, app
“Our product has two components: a mobile app and a planning tool. The app ensures things actually happen on the ground,” explained Houri Yafin. “We have conducted two pilots in Ghana, actual controlled trials, and demonstrated that the app makes a big difference.”
“We are now working on turning the prototype into a product,” he said. “The AI component requires more work — especially feeding more data into our algorithm. We are trying to establish collaborations with countries that are fighting malaria, as well as to run our own operations with a variety of malaria-control methods.”
“We are launching our first version in three months,” said Houri Yafin. “We see our system as the Waze of malaria elimination. There’s an element that gives you directions so you don’t make mistakes — ‘Turn right here; spray this house.’”