A COVID-19 exposure notification app won't work if people aren't motivated to use it: AI expert

"If the adoption rate is around 20 per cent or 30 per cent, it’s too low to have a measurable impact,” says Yoshua Bengio of the Montreal AI institute MILA.

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Deep-learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio isn’t exactly impressed by the federal government’s COVID-19 application — and he warns Quebec that widespread adoption of the technology will be required if the province’s future app is to play a central role in keeping the virus in check.

Ottawa’s free COVID Alert exposure notification app has been downloaded about 2.78 million times since it was made available in late July, Health Canada said Thursday. That represents less than eight per cent of the country’s population.

“What’s clear is that the strategy that’s been used by the federal government isn’t a winning one,” Bengio, scientific director of the Montreal-based artificial intelligence institute known as MILA, said in a telephone interview. “They made no real effort to convince people to use the app. And if Quebec does the same thing, it won’t work any better. If the adoption rate is around 20 per cent or 30 per cent, it’s too low to have a measurable impact.”

Bengio’s comments come as Quebec continues to weigh whether to develop its own COVID-19 tracing app or adopt the federal government’s technology. Health Minister Christian Dubé said last week that discussions within the provincial government are continuing. He didn’t provide a timetable.

As MILA’s best-known scientist, Bengio has skin in the game. MILA’s COVI app was one of the technologies that the federal government considered before choosing COVID Alert. Health Canada teamed up with Shopify and BlackBerry to develop COVID Alert.

Users of the app are notified if their phones came in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks. As of Wednesday, 396 people who tested positive for COVID-19 had entered their one-time key into the app to notify of others of a possible exposure, Health Canada said.

While polls — such as a May survey commissioned by the KMPG auditing firm — have shown most Canadians would be ready to sacrifice personal privacy to help stop the coronavirus, early adoption numbers suggest many are hesitant to follow through by downloading the government’s app, even though COVID Alert doesn’t track a user’s location or collect personally identifiable information.

Ottawa “continues to work with the other provinces and territories to onboard COVID Alert so all Canadians can benefit,” a Health Canada spokesperson told the Montreal Gazette Thursday. “The more Canadians who use the app, the more useful it will be to help slow the spread of infection and prevent future outbreaks. The app complements manual contact tracing by local public health authorities and does not replace other important guidance such as wearing a mask and maintaining physical distancing.”

So what’s required to make exposure notification apps a success?

“People are ready to share information, but they need to be taken by the hand,” Bengio said. “You need political leaders to get involved. We saw this play out with masks. How often did we talk about masks? A lot. So if we want people to acquire certain habits, make certain changes, we have to convince them. People have to have confidence. If there’s no strategy to ensure that half the people download the app — which would be good — you won’t get very far.”

While COVID Alert has drawn criticism for preventing some Canadians from accessing and using the app, Bengio prefers to focus on another feature — the decision to prioritize privacy over public health. As far as he’s concerned, that’s the wrong choice.

“Because the emphasis was put on protecting privacy, there is zero information that comes out of your phone,” he said. “You are so well protected that we have no idea what is going on. It’s a big problem. Are the millions of people who have downloaded the app really using it? It’s so private that we have no idea. We don’t know where they are, we don’t know whether they’re using it, we don’t know if they’re sick. We know nothing.”

Setting up an efficient exposure notification system is a complicated endeavour that will require time and money, Bengio said.

“You need more than two weeks to plan for this kind of system,” he said. “If the government wants to help tracing, there’s an entire infrastructure that needs to be put in place. It’s not just about the technology. You need to people to answer users’ questions. If there’s a bug, you need to fix it. You need to reassure people. It takes an entire organization.”

Bengio sounded pessimistic when asked about the chances of Quebec choosing MILA’s COVID-19 application.

“It’s out of my hands,” he said. “If they want to make a decision, they should send us a sign soon. I think they will take the federal app. From a political point of view, the advantage is that the federal government has already taken the risks with the app. It wouldn’t be a controversial decision.”

In the meantime, with a second wave of infections now gathering strength, the researcher is bracing for a difficult autumn.

“As a citizen, I’m worried,” he said. “I have a mother who is elderly and could easily get the virus. As a society, I think we’re taking this a little lightly. I see people walking down the street who are not respecting distancing. The discipline we had back in April has pretty much melted down.”

From Bengio’s standpoint, “people aren’t motivated enough to take part in the collective effort to fight the disease. It could be very different in two or three months if the second wave continues and becomes a problem. Maybe people will realize that if they don’t change their behaviour, their lives will become very complicated.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to COVID Alert as a contact tracing app. It is an exposure notification app.



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