Fredericton tech company Black Arcs gets $1M to build 'what if?' machine
Artificial intelligence software uses real data to model scenarios that usually take months to research
In a digital copy of the real world, you can test out how moving a school across town would affect things like mileage and emissions without burning a drop of gas.
But can you also test what would happen if that school was shut down to limit disease spread? At what point would keeping the school closed become more harmful than helpful?
A Fredericton tech company has received $1 million from the Department of National Defence to find the answer. Black Arcs Inc. is using artificial intelligence to visualize and predict people's behaviour in disaster situations, so every level of government can be prepared if another pandemic is declared.
This in turn would limit how much guessing officials must do, like when they shut down schools, reopened them, and shut them down again in New Brunswick during the pandemic.
"If you apply a mask mandate, and we have an estimate of how much masks affect spread, then we can run that through a simulation and and see how things pan out," said Dane Sheppard, director of technology at Black Arcs in Fredericton.
"It's really powerful tool because it lets us do this in a few minutes, rather than a few months, that might be more typical for a research project."
Sheppard said the company is working with University of New Brunswick professor of mathematics and statistics Sanjeev Seahra on a disease model based on real data that will be added to the company's existing software.
The simulation has already been used to process data from municipalities like Sackville to see which school locations would limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The Department of National Defence asked for proposals to address problems that surfaced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to its Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security program website.
The request included proposals on how to "re-use protective gear, clean equipment and workspaces, gain real-time insight for decision making, and care for front line workers."
Insight into real-time results
Black Arcs's program would achieve real-time insights, helping leaders test out different public health strategies and choose the ones that show the best outcomes.
"They really like the idea of our technology as a 'what if?' machine," Sheppard said. "So, what if there's a pandemic? What if there is a change to the environment and they need to react to it?"
Sheppard hopes the program will help make discussions about what to do during pandemics more clear. However, the decisions will always be up to the leaders, and governments will be responsible for what they do with the information it provides.
He said the company has a prototype and they're about halfway through the project, which ends in six months.
He said the client right now would be the Department of Defence, but the software can be applied to many other places.
"We're not a pandemic machine, we're built to ask any sort of question you might want to be looking at for a community," he said.
"That school placement in Sackville, transit systems in Moncton, flooding in Fredericton — these are all questions you want to be able to ask."