Artificial intelligence – fears and cheers in science and healthcare

Artificial intelligence (AI), defined as the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, is increasingly being used in healthcare, drug development and scientific research.

The advantages are obvious. AI has the ability to draw on an incredible amount of information to carry out multiple tasks in parallel, with substantially less human bias and error, and without constant supervision.

The problem with human bias is one of particular importance. In case you haven’t seen it, watch Dr Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk, on how humans easily form fictional memories that impact behavior, sometimes with severe consequences. I am not sure to what extent AI can be completely unbiased, programmers may inadvertently skew the importance that AI places on certain types of information. However, its still an improvement from the largely impulsive, emotion-based, and reward-driven human condition.

Applications of AI in healthcare includes its use in diagnosis of disease. IBM’s Watson, a question answering computer system designed to successfully beat two human contestants in the game show Jeopardy! outperformed doctors in diagnosing lung cancer with a 90% success rate, compared to just 50% for the doctors. Watson’s success was attributed to its ability to make decisions based on more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, more than two million pages from medical journals and the further ability to search through up to 1.5 million patient records. A human doctor in contrast, typically relies largely on personal experience, with only 20% of his/her knowledge coming from trial-based evidence.

AI systems are also being used to manage and collate electronic medical records in hospitals. Praxis for example uses machine learning to generate patient notes, staff/patient instructions, prescriptions, admitting orders, procedure reports, letters to referring providers, office or school excuses, and bills. It apparently gets faster, the more times it sees similar cases.

In terms of scientific research, AI is being explored in the following applications (companies involved):

  • going through genetic data to calculate predisposition to disease in an effort to administer personalized medicine or to implement lifestyle changes (Deep Genomics, Human Longevity, 23andMe, Rthm)
  • delivery of curated scientific literature based on custom preferences (Semantic ScholarSparrhoMeta now acquired by the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative)
  • going through scientific literature and ‘-omic’ results (i.e. global expression profiles of RNA, protein, lipids etc.) to detect patterns for targeted drug discovery efforts. Also termed de-risking drug discovery (Deep Genomics again, InSilico Medicine, BenevolentAI, NuMedii)
  • in silico drug screening where AI uses machine learning and 3D neural networks of molecular structures to reveal relevant chemical compounds (Atomwise, Numerate)

There is incredible investor interest in AI with 550 startups raising $5 billion in funding in 2016 (not limited to healthcare). Significantly, China is leading the advance in AI with iCarbonX achieving Unicorn status (> $1 billion) in funding. It was founded by Chinese genomicist Jun Wang, who previously managed Beijing Genomic Institute (BGI), one of the world’s sequencing centers that was involved in the Human Genome Project. iCarbonX now competes with Human Longevity in its effort to make sense of large amounts of genetic, imaging, behavioral and environmental data to enhance disease diagnosis or therapy.

Some challenges that AI faces in healthcare is the ultra-conservatism in terms of making changes to current practices. The fact that a large proportion of the healthcare sector do not understand how AI works, makes it more challenging for them to see the utility that AI can bring.

Another problem is susceptibility to data hacking, especially when it comes to patient records. One thing’s for sure, we can’t treat healthcare data the same way we are currently treating credit card data.

Then there’s the inherent fear of computers taking over the world. One that Elon Musk  and other tech giants seem to feel strongly about:



Though he wasn’t fearing computers develop a mind of their own, more so that AI may be unintentionally programmed to self-improve a process that spells disaster for humankind. And with AI having access to human health records, influencing patient management and treatment, and affecting drug development decisions, I think he has every right to be worried! If we’re not careful, we might be letting AI manage healthcare security as well. Oops, we already are: Protenus.


Other Sources:

PharmaVentures Industry insight: “The Convergence of AI and Drug Discovery” by Peter Crane

TechCrunch: “Advances in AI and ML are reshaping healthcare” by Megh Gupta Qasim Mohammad

ExtremeTech: “The next major advance in medicine will be the use of AI” by Jessica Hall


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s