Why A.I. Can Be a Moonshot for Global Health and Well-being

The future is about a bridge between cutting-edge science and ancient wisdom.

Puneet Vikram Singh / Getty Images
Puneet Vikram Singh / Getty Images

So much of the conversation around artificial intelligence is about either the negative consequences, like job losses, or the dangers, in the form of A.I. bias or the potential misuse of facial recognition technology. As Axios’s Kaveh Waddell reported this week, there can be a risk in trusting A.I. too much, for example in tasks like prescribing drugs or setting prison sentences. “These programs generally offer new information or a few options meant to help a human decision-maker choose more wisely,” he wrote. “But an overworked or overly trusting person can fall into a rubber-stamping role, unquestioningly following algorithmic advice.”

And that points up the fault line with A.I. Instead of thinking of it as something we should or shouldn’t trust — which puts us in a passive mindset — we should think of it as a tool we’re in charge of, and one that will work to the extent that we direct it in the right way. A great example of this was brought home to me last week at a dinner Bloomberg Media hosted for Natarajan Chandrasekaran, executive chairman of Tata Sons and Roopa Purushothaman, the Tata Group’s chief economist to discuss their new book, Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem, which comes out next week.

What struck me most — both about the dinner and the discussion — is the sense of optimism and possibility around the future of A.I. The thesis is that instead of thinking of A.I. as something that simply disrupts, A.I., used in the right way, can be better described as a bridge — between previously unsolvable problems and solutions, between levels of progress development, and between “aspirations and achievement.”

And as they make clear in the book, India — with its split-screen world of a fast-growing economy and tech sector alongside millions of people still needing access to basic services — is the perfect candidate to showcase the possibilities of A.I. as a bridge. “Bridgital holds the key to pulling India out of this conundrum,” they write. “By turning a challenge into an opportunity — seeing India’s access challenge as an engine of employment generation — it builds a technology-based bridge between the dual parts of the Indian economy. It helps build the ‘middle’ that India sorely needs.”

They write about how A.I. could help bring Indian women — 120 million of whom have a high school education but don’t work — into the workforce. And how A.I. will create jobs for “tech-enabled intermediaries” to “take on tasks previously done by experts and specialists.” They note how India is now going through an “epidemiological transition” — as communicable diseases decline, they’re being replaced by the deadly threat of chronic lifestyle and behavior conditions like heart disease and diabetes, which, as the authors note, are now the largest causes of illness and death in India. From 1990 to 2016, the number of Indians with diabetes went up by nearly 40 percent. And in the last 26 years, deaths from heart disease in India have gone up by 34 percent.

A.I. will be able to provide a desperately needed bridge in India between people and access to preventive care. “Primary care providers play a pivotal role in prevention education and early detection,” the authors write, “and primary care is the only key way to treat chronic diseases at scale.” 

But we need to go beyond access to preventive treatment to preventive behavior change — another bridge I’m optimistic A.I. can help build. Much of the world has already undergone that epidemiological transition and is suffering from the effects of it. In the U.S., 75 percent of health care spending is to treat stress- and lifestyle-related conditions. But behavior change and creating new habits is hard. That’s why we need the most powerful technology available to help us. A.I. can use algorithms and feedback loops to deliver the right personalized Microsteps to build healthy habits. It’s about using machine reinforcement learning to fuel human reinforcement learning. In that way, A.I. will also be a bridge from our focus on downstream harm reduction for chronic conditions to the upstream root causes of them. 

Our behaviors are already shaped by A.I. every day — from software designed to keep us endlessly scrolling on bottomless apps to marketing meant to convince us we need to spend money on things we don’t really need. But we can also employ A.I. to pull on those same psychological levers to empower people to disconnect from their tech temptations and have more time and space to connect with what they value the most. I know it’s paradoxical, but truth often is.

On this, India itself is a bridge — to its rich traditions of ancient wisdom that remind us of what truly matters in life. In addition to the ways laid out by Chandra and Roopa, A.I. can be like a GPS pointed toward a healthier and fuller life by delivering the course-correcting Microsteps we need to bring us closer to who we truly are and the riches inside us. 

The moonshot was a concerted and directed marshaling of cutting-edge technology toward a particular goal. A.I. has the potential to be a moonshot for health and well-being — a high-tech bridge to a deeply human future.

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