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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One of the oddest ways that an AI system can fail is by falling prey to an adversarial attack — a cleverly manipulated input that makes the system behave in an unexpected way.

Why it matters: Autonomous car experts worry that their cameras are susceptible to these tricks: It's been shown that a few plain stickers can make a stop sign look like a "Speed Limit 100" marker to a driverless vehicle. But other high-stakes fields — like medicine — are paying too little attention to this risk.

That's according to a powerhouse of researchers from Harvard and MIT, who published an today article in Science arguing that these attacks could blindside hospitals, pharma companies, and big insurers.

Details: Consider a photo of a mole on a patient's skin. Research has shown that it can be manipulated in a way that's invisible to the human eye, but still changes the result of an AI system's diagnosis from cancerous to non-cancerous.

The big question: Why would anyone want to do this?

  • For Samuel Finlayson, an MD–PhD candidate at Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the new paper, it’s a question of incentives. If someone sending in data for analysis has a different goal than the owner of the system doing the analysis, there's a potential for funny business.
  • We're not talking about a malicious doctor manipulating cancer diagnoses — "There's way more effective ways to kill a person," Finlayson says — but rather an extension of existing dynamics into a near future where AI is involved in billing, diagnosis, and reading medical scans.

Doctors and hospitals already game the insurance billing system — these could be considered proto-adversarial attacks, Finlayson tells Axios.

  • They often bill for more expensive procedures than they performed, in order to make more money, or avoid billing for procedures that they know will land a huge bill in the patient's lap.
  • Insurance companies are already hiring tech firms to put a stop to the practice, often with AI tools. Finlayson sees a future where basic adversarial attacks are used to fool the AI systems into continuing to accept fraudulent claims.
  • Despite this possibility, hospitals and the pharma industry are flying blind, he says. "Adversarial attacks aren't even on the map for them."

But, but, but: These hypotheticals are a bit far-fetched for Matthew Lungren, associate director of the Stanford Center for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine and Imaging.

  • "There are a lot of easier ways to defraud the system, frankly," he tells Axios.
  • But there is an urgent need, Lungren says, to test medical AI systems more rigorously before they're released into the world. Protecting against adversarial attacks is one of the ways experts should shore up algorithms before using them on patients.

Go deeper: Scientists call for rules on evaluating predictive AI in medicine

Go deeper

3 hours ago - World

U.S. and NATO answer Putin in writing while bracing for Ukraine invasion

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty

The U.S. and NATO provided Russia with written proposals on Wednesday to advance a "diplomatic path forward," even as they warned that Russia could invade Ukraine within days.

Why it matters: This is a delicate diplomatic balancing act. The U.S. and NATO want to show they're serious about diplomacy but unwilling to compromise on "core principles" — all without providing Vladimir Putin with an additional pretext for escalation.

The political leanings of the Supreme Court justices

Data: Martin-Quinn scores; Chart: Axios Visuals

The Supreme Court will continue to have a solid conservative majority even with Justice Stephen Breyer's retirement.

How to read the chart: An analysis by political scientists Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn, known as the Martin-Quinn Score, places judges on an ideological spectrum. A lower score indicates a more liberal justice, whereas a higher score indicates a more conservative justice.

The front-runners for Biden's Supreme Court pick

Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson (left) and Justice Leondra Kruger (right) Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images and Lonnie Tague, US Department of Justice

Two highly accomplished Black female judges — Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California Supreme Court — are seen as the early front-runners to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

The big picture: Jackson is a powerful federal judge with a record that progressives feel they can trust. Kruger was a highly regarded litigator and has carved out a reputation for working well with conservative judges.