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Seven questions about AI

Exploring AI, analytics and the future of health care

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Kerrie Holley:                        Hi, I'm Kerrie Holley, technical fellow at Optum focused on artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. I'm joined today by Maurice Conti. Maurice is chief innovation officer at Alpha, the moonshot factory arm of Telefonica. What compelled you, motivated you to become such an advocate for AI, for artificial intelligence and how it will shape people's lives?

Maurice Conti:                     Look, I'm a futurist and I'm also an optimist. Being a futurist and not being optimistic about the future ends up being a fairly depressing line of work. I'm super optimistic generally speaking, and I think this family of technologies that you and I think about are really going to be responsible for shaping what humanity looks like, what our relationship to each other and the planet looks like. These are transformational, foundational technologies and they're going to be such a big part of our future. That's why I'm so excited about them.

Kerrie Holley:                        One of the questions I hear a lot of Maurice is, what is artificial intelligence? I always like to think of it as a field of computer science. What often annoys me is when people describe artificial intelligence as something we've been doing for decades. That's like saying we've been doing physics for centuries. Obviously Newton, creator of gravity, or the discovery of gravity certainly is a great physicist, but we certainly wouldn't ask Newton to teach physics at Oxford in the 21st century.

Kerrie Holley:                        In a like manner, we've got the birth of artificial intelligence in the 50s. We had the spring of AI and we saw some great things being done. Perhaps the most iconic display of that was IBM beating the reigning world chess champion. How do you define, how do you look at AI?

Maurice Conti:                     Very much the same way Kerrie. I think those many historical areas for AI and those defining moments are very much the way I think about it. What's next is interesting, like what's the next wave? Interestingly for the first time ... Right now the big locus of energy and productivity in the space is in machine learning, deep learning, NLP. We're just starting to see significant effort and early results in reasoning, common sense. I think those are a long way off before they're going to be productive tools for general folks, but it will come. Those tools will be much more general purpose, much more powerful, much more relatable to humans. We'll be able to understand how these tools work as a lay person.

Maurice Conti:                     But, one thing that maybe doesn't get talked about as much that I think is very much part of the next wave is that for the first time, humans are going to have a much more significant relationship with these technologies. In the previous three waves, those defining moments, the humans were just on stage for show in a way, but in the next stage it's actually going to look a lot more like a partnership. This partnership, the result of this partnership is going to be achievement that has been out of our reach previous to that partnership.

Maurice Conti:                     Together with this technology and human collaborating almost as peers, as co-creators, we're going to solve problems that we've never solved before, reach heights that we've never reached before and I think that's for me the most exciting and interesting, defining characteristic of this next wave. I don't have a name for it, but that's what I'm most excited to see unfold.

Kerrie Holley:                        When it comes to developing artificial intelligence, how important is the underlying data, the quantity, the quality, the diversity?

Maurice Conti:                     Especially with the kinds of AI that we're doing today, data is key. I mean, you can't do anything without good data. Interestingly, I think the healthcare sector is incredibly well placed in this regard. The industry has access to huge amounts of data. It's generally relatively speaking, very high quality data, well understood, well labeled and so forth. It's also a broad and disparate, so it covers lots of different areas, modalities, situations and so by putting these different data sets together, you could get incredible insight. The industry as a whole I think is probably the best placed industry to take advantage of AI on the planet right now, so very exciting.

Kerrie Holley:                        That's good to know. What is the augmented age?

Maurice Conti:                     The augmented age is this vision of the relatively near future. I'm not talking 50, 100 years out, but in the decades that are coming that is inspired by focuses on this idea of humans and technology partnering in order to achieve things that neither could achieve on their own. This is the big deal, is robots can do some things, humans can do others but together, the sum, that partnership is greater than the parts. I actually think that partnership is going to unlock some major things. We're going to be able to solve problems that we've never been able to solve before. We're also faced with problems we've never faced before so I think the time is right for this. That's the augmented age.

Kerrie Holley:                        What do you see with the augmented age and making us healthier and preventing us from being sick?

Maurice Conti:                     Well, I think you can look at it in terms of, how does healthcare change in the augmented age? The healthcare system is going to keep us from getting sick in the future, the same way it does today in some respects, only we're going to be a lot better at it. I don't actually see a fundamental shift in the way things play out, but rather a overall from the macro perspective, a gradual improvement. There will be spikes and spurts and sprints of things I'm becoming disruptively better, but as a whole I think the whole thing is just going to float and become better.

Maurice Conti:                     Some of the exceptions, we're already seeing incredible advances and things like precision medicine, genomics, a lot of that's driven by Ai. But generally speaking, I think you could look ... Healthcare is so, it's a multidimensional super complex system and I think anywhere you look, you're going to see change and improvement driven by Ai.

Kerrie Holley:                        Maurice, how will the patient experience change with the advent of artificial intelligence, the technologies and when the healthcare system adopts the augmented age?

Maurice Conti:                     That's a great question. In one respect, I think it will just broadly get better. These are empowering tools. They just help us do the work that we do today more efficiently, at higher levels of quality and so forth. But in another way, I think the care could actually become more human, which is interesting because we're talking about technology, which is decidedly not human, but the ultimate end result could be more human.

Maurice Conti:                     One way to look at that, as we automate more and more of the parts of the process that don't directly touch the patient, that aren't directly related to their health, administrative stuff, operational stuff, that kind of thing. As we automate that, that leaves more time for the caregivers to actually give care that only a human can give. Therefore, that interchange becomes more of a human experience.

Maurice Conti:                     In terms of getting more efficiency, getting the friction out of the system, one example might be designing the ER of the future and right now already today, there are tools online where an AI could help you do that. Basically you tell the AI, "Here's what an ER looks like," kind of the envelope, let's say the outside walls conceptually speaking. Here is the input and here's the desired output. So, people come in the door here, this is what's going on with them, this is what needs to happen to those patients, these are the resources we have available.

Maurice Conti:                     You put all of those variables into the system and then the computer goes out and explores millions or tens of millions of options in terms of how you could lay it out physically, where you could put the different practices, specialties, equipment and so forth and it will return the optimal result and this optimization is far beyond what a team of humans could do. What you're left with is a design for an ER that is more efficient, cleaner, safer and so forth, and better than anything that's ever been built before. Then you start to apply that to not just ERs, but entire hospitals, and clinics and so forth, I think you start to see some interesting results.

Kerrie Holley:                        Do you see doctors being replaced by AI, by robots or intelligent systems?

Maurice Conti:                     Yeah, right, humans getting completely replaced, not anytime soon. I would not worry about that, certainly in our lifetimes, probably not even in our kids lifetimes. When you think about automation, what we actually automate his tasks, not jobs. These machine systems are good at automating narrow specific things and if you think about the way we work, that's generally not what we do. There are some jobs that are made up of one task. If you're in one of those jobs, then I would be worried, and we're already seeing the automation of those kinds of jobs.

Maurice Conti:                     One of the things that's interesting, this is not a top of the pyramid, bottom of the pyramid gradient. Someone working in a fast food restaurant, that is an almost unautomateable job because it's so different, there are so many modalities. That is extremely difficult to automate. This is an entry level job, not going to go away anytime soon. There are some top of the pyramid jobs. If I worked in finance or law, I would be worried, that actually computers are quite good at and humans not necessarily well suited to. It's interesting, this is not something that's targeting more economically vulnerable populations, it's sort of spread vertically quite evenly.

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Listen in on a conversation between experts

11 min.

Maurice Conti, a globally renowned futurist, and Kerrie Holley, a renowned artificial intelligence (AI) expert, discuss the future of AI in health care and how it will enable better, more efficient and more human care. 

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