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Is medicine ready for AI? Doctors, computer scientists, and policymakers are cautiously optimistic

With the artificial intelligence conversation now mainstream, the 2023 MIT-MGB AI Cures conference saw attendance double from previous years.
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Alex Ouyang
Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health
Nine academics pose standing side by side while smiling for the camera in a room with a glass wall and the Boston skyline behind them
MIT-MGB AI Cures speakers and senior advisory committee members stand side-by-side. Left to right: Paul Anderson, Regina Barzilay, David Bates, Terry Ragon, Anne Klibanski, Jonathan Kraft, Mark Schwartz, Susan Hockfield, and Phillip Sharp.
Image courtesy of Jameel Clinic.
Close-up shot of Kate Walsh speaking at a lectern that reads "Jameel Clinic" in front.
Inaugurated in March of this year, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Kate Walsh spoke at MIT-MGB AI Cures about how AI could promote equity and augment the workforce.
Image courtesy of Jameel Clinic.
Photo overlooking an audience with "MIT-MGB AI Cures" displayed on the screen at the front.
Over 500 attendees came to the MIT-MGB AI Cures Conference hosted at the Samberg Conference Center.
Image courtesy of Jameel Clinic.
Photo of Marzyeh Ghassemi sitting on a couch and speaking with an MIT Jameel Clinic backdrop behind her.
Jameel Clinic principal investigator Marzyeh Ghassemi spoke at AI Cures about a new clinical AI tool she is building with clinical collaborator Megha Gupta, from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, that is intended to assess pregnancy risk before women become pregnant.
Image courtesy of Jameel Clinic.

The advent of generative artificial intelligence models like ChatGPT has prompted renewed calls for AI in health care, and its support base only appears to be broadening.

The second annual MIT-MGB AI Cures Conference, hosted on April 24 by the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (Jameel Clinic), saw its attendance nearly double this year, with over 500 attendees from an array of backgrounds in computer science, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and policy. 

In contrast to the overcast Boston weather that morning, many of the speakers took an optimistic view of AI in health and reiterated two key ideas throughout the day: that AI has the potential to create a more equitable health-care system, and AI won’t be replacing clinicians anytime soon — but clinicians who know how to use AI will eventually replace clinicians who don’t incorporate AI into their daily practice. 

"Collaborations with our partners in government, especially collaborations at the intersection of policy and innovation, are critical to our work,” MIT Provost Cynthia Barnhart stated in her opening remarks to the audience. “All of the pioneering activity you’ll hear about today leaves me very hopeful for the future of human health.” 

Massachusetts General Brigham’s (MGB) president and CEO Anne Klibanski’s remarks reflected a similar optimism: “We have visionaries here in AI, we have visionaries here in health care. If this group can’t come together in a meaningful way to impact health care, we have to ask ourselves why we’re here ... this is a time when we have to rethink health care.” Klibanski called attention to the work of Jameel Clinic AI faculty lead, AI Cures co-chair, and MIT Professor Regina Barzilay and MGB Center for Innovation in Early Cancer Detection Director Lecia Sequist, whose research in lung cancer risk assessment is an example of how the continued collaboration between MIT and MGB could yield fruitful results for the future of AI in medicine. 

“Is AI going to be the thing that cures everything with our ailing health care system?” asked newly inaugurated Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Kate Walsh. “I don’t think so, but I think it’s a great place to start.” Walsh highlighted the pandemic as a wake-up call for the health care system and focused on AI’s potential to establish more equitable care, particularly for those with disabilities, as well as augment an already burdened workforce. “We absolutely have to do better ... AI can look across populations and develop insights into where the health care system is failing us and redistribute the health care system so it can do more.” 

Barzilay called out the marked absence of AI in health care today with a reference to the No Surprises Act implemented last year, which requires insurance companies to be transparent about billing codes. “The FDA has approved over 500 AI tools in the last few years and from the 500 models, only 10 have associated billing codes that are actually used,” she said. “What this shows is that AI’s outcome on patients is really limited, and my hope is this conference brings together people who develop AI, clinicians who are the ones bringing innovation to patients, regulators, and people from biotech who are translating these innovations into products. With this forum we have a chance to change that.” 

Despite the enthusiasm, speakers did not sugarcoat the potential risks, nor did they downplay importance of safety in the development and implementation of clinical AI tools.

“You’ve got those who think that AI is going to solve all the world’s problems in the health-care space, replace the world’s physicians, and revolutionize health care. And then you have the other side of the spectrum that says how bad AI is for our economy and how it’s going to take over the world, developing an intelligence of its own,” Jameel Clinic principal investigator, AI Cures speaker, and MIT Professor Collin Stultz said. “None of these concepts are new, but like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle.”  

"There are always potential unintended consequences,” CEO of Cambridge Health Alliance and the Cambridge Commissioner of Public Health Assaad Sayah pointed out during the conference’s regulatory panel. “At the end of the day, it's hard to predict what are the potential consequences and have the appropriate safeguards ... many things are really inappropriately inequitable for certain sub-populations ... there's so much data that's been hard to contain. I would implore all of you to keep this in mind.” 

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