Five ways AI will make health transformation truly global

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the AI revolution in health is that these advances are taking place around the globe, not just in wealthier nations that we tend to associate with cutting-edge innovation.

Look at China, which in 2017 outlined plans to become the global leader in AI by 2030 and has already made tremendous progress. Lung cancer is the most common cancer in the country and Chinese life insurer Ping An has developed AI that this year broke records for detecting lung nodules in CT scans. The hope is that this will help staff improve detection of lung cancer.

Diagnostics is just one part of healthcare that is being transformed, and we’ve highlighted five applications for AI that could have a transformative effect on people around the globe.

Who wants AI-powered doctors?

Those of us in countries with relatively good access to affordable healthcare might be so used to seeing a doctor face to face that a health appointment with an AI-powered machine sounds a little sinister. After all, healing people is associated with human touch. Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, has said he doesn’t believe that AI will replace doctors. But given the acute shortage of healthcare professionals in some parts of the world, maybe care from a bot is preferable to no care at all? A recent survey from PwC found that 94% of people in Nigeria are willing to engage with AI and robotics for their healthcare needs. That figure is 85% and 82% in Turkey and South Africa, contrasted with just 51% for Germany and 50% for the UK. So even if you develop your AI technology in the West, you might find a more receptive market in countries that you never thought of targeting.

Machines with superhuman abilities

AI-equipped tools make it easier to leverage insights from different kinds of data, beyond the type of structured data we might find in the rows and columns of Excel spreadsheets. Machines are being trained to “scan” through images faster, better and cheaper than human beings, but what if they could listen better than humans, too?

Researchers are working on algorithms that can detect changes in our spontaneous speech, with the hope that these variations can help to detect the onset of a disease, even before symptoms appear.

Imagine a future where, instead of waiting for traditional signs of dementia and getting tested by the doctor, the smart speakers in our homes could be monitoring changes in our speech as we ask for the news, weather and sports scores and detecting the disease far earlier than is possible today.

What if the smart home of the future could “see” when an older person living alone has fallen over and automatically call for help? Ubenwa, a startup in Nigeria, is doing something similar with AI-powered tools that listen to an infant’s cries and detect birth asphyxia (lack of oxygen) using an app instead of relying on a blood gas analyser.

Self-care tools in your pocket

Obesity is a growing public health issue, with both adults and children eating too many calories, particularly in western countries. AI could help us eat less and make healthier choices. The latest AI assistants on smartphones help consumers understand the nutritional content of their meals simply by taking a picture. One startup has even developed headphones that provide an AI personal trainer that helps coach you during your workouts. These innovations are a few of a growing range of AI powered services available directly to consumers interested in self-care.

The next wave of virtual therapists

India has 1.5 billion people, but only 3,500 psychiatrists and government statistics estimate it needs an extra 11,500 to meet demand. However, this year India is expected to have 530 million smartphone users. A teenage girl with mental health issues living in a village 100km from the nearest big city might now be able to get the care she needs 24 hours a day thanks to new services like Wysa. Labelled as a “compassionate AI chatbot for behavioural health”, Wysa and products like it are challenging us to think differently about the role of AI in healthcare and whether machines will ever be capable of human levels of empathy.

Ethics of shifting to preventative healthcare

The more we rely on the complex algorithms that power AI, the more some people feel concerned. How do we ensure these algorithms are fair, ethical and transparent? The UK government wants to set up a ground-breaking Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, while India is getting a new research institute, Wadhwani AI, which has a mission of harnessing AI for social good.

How would you feel, for example, if your activity on social media was monitored by AI to look for signs of suicidal thoughts? Research from both China and the USA is being applied to do just this. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, has been using such a system for nine months and has identified 20,000 at-risk users and directed them to support. Facebook has also been using a similar system, which automatically highlights content that might contain suicidal thoughts and sends that information to human reviewers.

AI is being touted as one of the ways we can shift traditional healthcare systems from reacting to when we get sick to detecting illness in advance and ultimately reducing the economic burden of chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. But how do we feel about an all-seeing AI that monitors our every move, sending us digital nudges to ensure that our choices are the optimal ones?

As investment into AI research, products and services grows, we all need to be part of the conversation as to how it’s developed, deployed and monitored. Listening to the voice of the patient is critical. Healthcare systems are straining under the pressure of increasing demand, both in the developed and developing world, and the world population is projected to grow from 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050. We must ensure that policy, process and people move in tandem, otherwise we may not maximize the impact of this AI revolution.


Maneesh Juneja

About the author

Maneesh Juneja

Maneesh Juneja is a Digital Health Futurist who explores the convergence of emerging technologies to see how they can make the world a healthier and happier place. He looks at these technologies in the context of socio-cultural, political and economic trends, helping organisations to think differently about the future. In 2016, he was ranked the seventh most influential in digital health by Onalytica and, at the beginning of 2015, he was ranked the tenth most influential in wearable technology. In 2012, he left the security of his career in pharmaceuticals to immerse himself in the new world of digital health. The same year, Maneesh founded the Health 2.0 London Chapter, which has become the UK’s largest grassroots health tech community. In a career spanning 20 years, Maneesh has worked with data to improve decision-making across a number of industries.


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(1 comment)

  • Chenai Muchena

    Fellow at Next Generation Women Young Leaders' Program

    April 15th 2018 23:45

    Interesting article highlighting some important trends shaping healthcare delivery across the globe. I believe there is also room for new players working on disease progression modelling in the healthcare market. Detailing the expected survival outcomes of patients based on their genetic makeup, health history, and external environmental factors. there are a number of pros and cons to this, for example, if this AI predicted that I would die from the cancer I was diagnosed with in a few years, would that improve the way I live?


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