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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A broad new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) lays out ethical principles for the use of artificial intelligence in medicine.

Why it matters: Health is one of the most promising areas of expansion for AI, and the pandemic only accelerated the adoption of machine learning tools. But adding algorithms to health care will require that AI can follow the most basic rule of human medicine: "Do no harm" — and that won't be simple.

Driving the news: After nearly two years of consultations by international experts, the WHO report makes the case that the use of AI in medicine offers great promise for both rich and poorer countries, but "only if ethics and human rights are put at the heart of its design, deployment and use," the authors write.

Between the lines: The power of AI in health care is also its peril — the ability to rapidly process vast quantities of data and identify meaningful and actionable patterns far faster than human experts could.

  • When it works, AI holds the promise of helping human clinicians provide better and cheaper care — as in a project that uses AI to rapidly scan for cervical cancer in under-resourced parts of Africa and India.
  • But if something goes wrong, a mistake in a single algorithm risks doing far more widespread harm than any single doctor might do. In a recent study, an algorithm used to identify cases of sepsis was found to miss two-thirds of cases while frequently issuing false alarms.

The big picture: To get the most out of AI in medicine while minimizing harm, the WHO report lays out a kind of "Hippocratic Oath" for artificial practitioners of the medical arts.

  • The principles include that humans — both clinicians and patients — remain the ultimate decision-makers in medicine, AI in health primarily "does no harm" and any recommendations or actions by AI remain transparent and explainable.
  • AI technologies should be clearly accountable for patient outcomes, engineered to be usable to the widest possible population and designed to ensure they actually work in real-world conditions — not just in trials.

The catch: Not unlike the modern Hippocratic Oath — all of 340 words — outlining the principles of responsible AI use in health is a lot easier than putting them into practice.

The bottom line: Few professional relationships require more trust than that between a clinician and their patient, and medical AI still needs to earn that trust.

Go deeper

Updated Sep 29, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on how AI is revolutionizing across industries

On Wednesday, September 29, Axios future correspondent Bryan Walsh discussed how companies and governments are integrating AI to modernize efficient systems in society, featuring Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and Global GM (Smart Cities & Transportation) for IOT Solutions at Intel Sameer Sharma.

Mayor William Peduto spoke about how Pittsburgh’s universities have aided in the city’s R&D for AI, the importance of standards creation for algorithms, and how Pittsburgh has adopted AI technology into some of the city’s management systems.

  • On crafting standards for regulating AI security: “One of the industries that I think that really needs to be looked at and needs to start at a local level is how we can incorporate AI for good, in order to be able to understand what the rules and regulations should be for artificial intelligence as we consume it on a daily basis through social media and other means.”
  • On successful AI integration in Pittsburgh’s transportation system: “We began creating traffic signals that actually could learn, traffic signals that were created with algorithms and sensors that could make our streets safer, that could reduce idling time by 34%.”

Sameer Sharma explained how cities can harness AI to enhance public safety, the future of smart city initiatives, and how the pandemic shifted many cities’ public services to digital platforms.

  • On using AI to analyze vast amounts of data: “When you have this data tsunami and we are already in the middle of it, how do you make sense of it? That’s where the power of AI at the edge and in the cloud comes in, and it needs to be connected to an intelligent network.”
  • On how COVID-era digitization could boost smart city initiatives: “COVID was a very tough experience for us as a global community, but if there is one silver lining, it is that years of debate and discussion about digitization, digital transformation, has converted into months of action. And you clearly saw cities that were thinking ahead and had built some resilience and flexibility into their infrastructure were able to pivot quickly and provide these new services.”

Axios SVP of Product and Technology Melanie Colton hosted a View from the Top segment with Beyond Limits CEO and Founder AJ Abdallat, who discussed how AI is being applied to existing knowledge to solve complex problems.

  • “What we’re seeing and what we’re doing here at Beyond Limits is we see the evolution as AI will center around cognitive reasoning. This will enhance the numeric AI applications. This hybrid approach to AI allows us to really solve more complex problems, more challenging problems, by combining the data-driven approach with embedded human knowledge.”

Thank you Beyond Limits for sponsoring this event.

3 mins ago - World

Ukraine president to Biden: "There are no minor incursions"

Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded on Thursday to President Biden's suggestion that a "minor incursion" by Russia may not draw the same response as a large invasion, which some in Kyiv saw as inviting Russian aggression.

What he's saying: "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power," Zelensky tweeted.

14 mins ago - Health

The drugs pushing prescription prices down for Medicare patients

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Although net prices of brand-name drugs have increased significantly over the last decade, the savings produced by generics have actually driven average prescription prices down in Medicare's pharmacy benefit and Medicaid, according to a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Why it matters: The analysis reiterates that the generic market is largely working as intended.