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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

Ben Geman, author of Generate
13 mins ago - Energy & Environment

IEA analysis charts "narrow" pathway to Paris climate goal

Photovoltaic solar panels at the power plant in La Colle des Mees, Alpes de Haute Provence, southeastern France. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP via Getty Images

The pathway for transforming global energy systems to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is "narrow but still achievable" and demands unprecedented acceleration away from fossil fuels, an International Energy Agency report published Tuesday concludes.

Why it matters: It provides detailed analysis and estimates of what's needed for a good shot at limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels — the Paris Agreement benchmark for avoiding some of the most damaging effects of climate change.

2 hours ago - World

In photos: Deadly Cyclone Tauktae leaves trail of destruction across India

A police officer helps a public transport driver cross a flooded street due to heavy rain caused by Tropical Cyclone Tauktae in Mumbai, India, on May 17. Photo: Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tropical Cyclone Tauktae killed at least 16 people in India after making landfall in Gujarat Monday, packing 100mph winds, and sweeping across Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, per Reuters.

The big picture: The storm unleashed heavy rains and winds as authorities continued to grapple with surging infection rates and deaths from COVID-19. Over 200,000 people were evacuated from Gujarat, and ports, airports and vaccination centers shut in the state and Mumbai, Reuters reports. Tauktae weakened from a Category 3 storm into a "severe cyclonic storm" Tuesday morning local time.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Yellen wants business to help foot infrastructure bill

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is heading into the belly of the beast Tuesday and asking the business community to support President Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan during a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Why it matters: By trying to persuade a skeptical and targeted audience, Yellen is signaling the president’s commitment to raising corporate taxes to pay for his plan. Republican senators, critical to a potential bipartisan deal, oppose any corporate tax increase.