Montreal student researchers help create virtual medical assistant for COVID-19

Have you come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 and don’t know what to do? Do you need to self-isolate and require support? With the list of coronavirus-related symptoms constantly changing, are you unsure if you’re infected?

Montreal-based virtual care leader Dialogue is providing all Canadians with real-time answers to these, and other, coronavirus-related questions with the launch of a free virtual medical assistant called Chloe for COVID-19. The user-friendly, automated resource uses artificial intelligence to provide daily check-in support to those in isolation, and direct where and when to get tested for the virus, in addition to addressing a wide variety of concerns.

“When the pandemic hit, we asked ourselves ‘What can we do to help the public?’” said Alexis Smirnov, Dialogue co-founder and CTO. “We were already providing virtual care services to millions of Canadians through our corporate service, but felt we had a greater responsibility to support the public at large.”

The team initially developed Chloe for COVID-19 in March as an information resource to give Canadians access to relevant and accurate data and alleviate strain on 811 health services nationally. The latest version, launched this month with funding support from national innovation organization Mitacs, offers robust features such as wide-ranging Q&A capabilities, daily guidance for those in required 14-day self-isolation, and up-to-the-minute information on coronavirus testing, including nearest test centres nationally and whether or not an appointment is needed. “If you need to self-isolate, for example, Chloe will get in touch with you every day to track your symptoms, tell you what to expect, and provide guidance on where to go for support if you need help,” Smirnov explained.

Accessible at covid19.dialogue.co from any device with Internet access, including smartphones, tablets and computers, the Chloe for COVID-19 virtual assistant takes the form of an avatar inspired by the first registered nurse hired by the company when it launched in 2016. It relies on information from trusted Canadian medical and government sources to provide general information on the virus as well as to answer more specific questions related to infection and complication risk, virus spread, symptoms, treatment, travel plans and more.

Data is fast moving and varied across Canada, with every provincial and municipal jurisdiction having its own COVID-19 website, explained Smirnov, so it’s Chloe’s job to quickly access that information, index it and use it to provide the most relevant and accurate information to users.

Students help accelerate technology

Helping to accelerate the technology’s development are Université de Montréal Master’s students from the Mila Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, who are sharing their expertise in machine learning. Their internship is funded by Mitacs, which is currently offering Canadian companies developing solutions to COVID-19 a special promotion where the company need only invest $3,750 towards total funding of $15,000 that covers an intern’s stipend for up to six months.

Calling the Mitacs interns’ work “instrumental in helping to advance Chloe,” Smirnov explained that “the students are working alongside our engineers to solve our most important technological challenges.”

Mitacs intern Nicolas Trudel-Mallet, for example, is working to fine-tune Chloe’s natural language processing abilities, while Yassir El Mesbahi is helping to advance the underlying chatbot conversational system.

“The challenge with a virtual assistant is that messages can be construed in multiple ways,” said Trudel-Mallet, explaining that the system needs to understand such things as whether ‘no, thanks’ means ‘no’ or ‘thanks.’ “Our goal is to achieve the highest accuracy possible,” he explained.

For Trudel-Mallet, the experience is an opportunity to learn about the burgeoning world of telemedicine — which he believes will only grow in importance once the pandemic is over — while doing good at the same time. “It’s super gratifying as an intern to be able to work directly on something that’s going to be valuable to so many people,” he said.

Chloe for COVID-19 is being developed in conjunction with technology partners Dataperformers, Google Cloud, Mila, Nu Echo, Samasource and Scale AI.

The project has capacity for more research interns. Interested students studying software engineering, artificial intelligence or telemedicine anywhere in Canada should contact the Mitacs business development team.

Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions. It is funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan.

For information about Mitacs and its programs, see mitacs.ca/newsroom

— Mitacs

— AB

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