March 3, 2019

Harvard Gazette: Symposium Examines Promise, Hype of Artificial Intelligence in Health Care

By Alvin Powell | Harvard Staff Writer

In 2016, a Google team announced it had used artificial intelligence to diagnose diabetic retinopathy — one of the fastest-growing causes of blindness — as well as trained eye doctors could.

In December 2018, Microsoft and the pharmaceutical giant Novartis announced a partnership to develop an AI-powered digital health tool to be deployed against one of humanity’s oldest scourges — leprosy, which still afflicts 200,000 new patients annually.

Around the world, artificial intelligence is being touted as the next big thing in health care, and a potential game-changer for billions living in regions where medical infrastructure is inadequate and doctors and nurses scarce.

Despite that potential, some fear that too-rosy views of AI’s promise will lead to disappointment and, worse, rob scarce health care dollars from desperately needed investments in existing medical infrastructure. Experts in AI and global health gathered at Harvard this week to survey the complex artificial intelligence-global health landscape, examine what’s being done today and what’s promised for tomorrow, and try to separate reality from fantasy when it comes to AI’s potential impact on global health.

“The promise of AI is enormous, but the challenges are often glossed over,” said Ashish Jha, faculty director of Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI). “We have this sense that they’ll somehow take care of themselves. And we know they will not.”