Seán McDonagh: Artificial Intelligence and Medicine

Artificial Intelligence and Medicine

Seán McDonagh

In 2020, with every country in the world attempting to fight against Covid-19, researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the coronavirus more thoroughly and to find drugs that can fight it or create a vaccine. In February 2020, researchers at the London start-up, Benevolent AI, published a letter in medical journal, The Lancet. It described how this company is using machine-learning algorithms to identify a drug that could fight Covid-19. In Thailand, hospitals are deploying “ninja robots” to measure the fever level of corona virus patients and to protect the health of medical workers on the frontlines. These robots were first developed to monitor recovering stroke patients. Now, they are being used to fight Covid-19. In April 2020, many of us had already downloaded a Covid tracker on our phones. This sophisticated piece of technology helps us to trace people who may be infected with Covid-19.

While that is very admirable during a pandemic crisis, many would fear that, in the future, the same tools would be used to trace migrants or refugees, when the pandemic has passed. That is why respect for human rights must be at the heart of all these new technologies, such as the use of drones and facial recognition photography, to mention just two.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, in many countries, WhatsApp enables millions of grandparents and grandchildren to connect and view each other as they communicated on the phone. So, at this level, WhatsApp or similar platforms, were a great support for families which had to keep physically apart during the pandemic. It is also a wonderful technology for keeping in touch with older people in the community who may not have family living in the area in order that they do not feel cut off or disconnected from the community.

However, there is also a downside to how these technologies are structured and how there are used. As governments and medical personnel attempt to inform people, about what is happening with this novel coronavirus, their efforts are being undermined by the spread of misinformation regarding the origin of the virus and false claims regarding cures. On 17 March 2020, Vera Jourova, Vice President of the European Commission, said that “it is clear … that a lot of false information continues to appear in the public sphere”.

These technologies can be very beneficial and so we should be grateful for the breakthroughs in vital information. However, the new technologies, and the corporations which control them, such as Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Google can have a serious negative impact on our privacy and our freedom.

The amount of data these companies amass on an individual is astonishing, and the algorithms which they use to process it are so all-encompassing that they can assure their customers that their products will be bought more readily. Most of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising and it is a very lucrative business. The same is true for the tech companies. Surveillance capitalism has made these companies very rich in just twenty years.

Ethics and AI

Ethics must play a key role in developing a code of conduct for the software industry. The Catholic Church is very interested in software ethics and the various elements of our lives that software touches. The Pontifical Academy of Life ran a two-day conference on the ethical use of AI technology during February 28th and 29th 2020. The conference promoted what they called ‘algor-ethics’, which is the ethical use of artificial intelligence “according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security and privacy.” Pope Francis was scheduled to speak at the conference, but had to cancel because he was unwell. The pope’s paper was read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Academy of Life. The pope was clear that “the aim of the ethical development of algorithms is to ensure a review of the “processes by which we integrate relationships between human beings and today’s technology.” The pope continued that “the Church’s social teaching on the dignity of the person, justice, subsidiarity and solidarity is a critical contribution in the pursuit of these goals.” Beyond that, the pope admitted that the complexity of the technological world demands of us an increasingly clear ethical framework so as to make this commitment truly effective.


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