By Alfredo Moreno
Never before have we had the conditions to penetrate human beings as we do now, as we lacked knowledge of the data chains related to organic processes and did not have the arsenal of devices based on digital technologies applied to human health. It is in the field of medicine that we expect to see the greatest impacts and benefits of artificial intelligence (AI), along with devices from the internet of things (IoT).
It is a given, as the big tech giants known as Gafam (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) and technoscience built a global consensus that AI should enable medical research to push the current boundaries of human health knowledge and practice.
Technoscience has transformed the structure of scientific-technological practice in all its dimensions and has incorporated new values into scientific activity. Obviously, technoscience produces instrumental knowledge associated with the interests of those who finance projects for new innovations, research and development.
The Silicon Valley model is to accelerate the process of modernisation of the health sector, or the health industry as it is called, through the digitalisation of its processes, practices and services. The new medical system arises from the application of data science models based on algorithms that build the predictive foundations of Hippocratic truth.
From 1990 onwards, the progressive introduction of digital instruments in ophthalmology, cardiology and radiology and of information systems for the register of medical practice fed the first health data storage servers. Laboratories and other medical specialties followed. With the Internet, the increase in bandwidth and the growth in server storage capacity led to an exponential increase in the flow of this data, giving rise to an increasingly sophisticated and abundant data analysis that requires software-based tools and high-speed processing to work with big data in the health sector.
Health information systems
In the mid-1990s, the historic IBM based its strategy on the Watson medical information system, in reference to John Watson, an American behavioural psychologist. These systems, known as Health Information Systems (HIS), aim to integrate all the medical information produced in healthcare institutions.
Watson is a software platform whose objective is to collect the operational data of medical practice for it to then be able to diagnose and relate pathologies to its constantly growing knowledge base (database). At the operational level of the health organisation, the doctor registers the transactions that feed the medical history of the people and the evolution of the treatment according to the diagnosis issued. In addition, Watson links the diagnosis to scientific scholarly articles for the practitioner’s consumption in order to broaden his or her reference base. The somewhat disturbing function of this platform is that it builds or advances preventive diagnoses. From operational level data, plus the relationships found in knowledge bases with similar pathologies, Watson configures the diagnosis, which appears as a new competence for the human doctor.
What characterises these systems with automated processes is that they are not produced in the medical ambit but by the actors of the digital industry that pushes the technoliberal model. And it is these companies that develop equipment, protocols and applications to be incorporated into health and therapeutic care centres. This model produces a mismatch between the technical, economic and health worlds, where the latter is a witness to how the former imposes its innovations with the associated economic benefits.
Corporations such as Alphabet (Google), Microsoft or Amazon have several dashboards and digital territories that allow them to concentrate and analyse datasets by medical speciality in order to build a digital human cartography.
Vetily is Alphabet’s research organisation dedicated to the study of life sciences. Vetily conducts research in systems biology, nanotechnology and biomedical systems engineering with potential applications for immuno-oncology and other areas. They integrate experimental capabilities with computational biology to support data generation and analysis in our clinical programmes.
Microsoft, for its part, brought Surface closer to healthcare professionals.
Apple is also in the same league. Its devices have multiple possibilities, either through apps or add-ons, to obtain relevant data for personal health monitoring.
Amazon has an important arsenal of data analytics tools, its priority being Alexa, the artificial intelligence assistant for professionals and hospitalised patients. In addition, the multinational, with its commerce and distribution platform, is starting to operate chains of medical products and goods.
The Baseline project of Alphabet‘s scientific division will analyse genetics, Style of Life and other factors that influence health. With the support of Stanford and Duke universities, and in conjunction with ten thousand volunteers, they will work to produce a data science-based catalogue of diseases with a corresponding tariff for each treatment. The data capture is done through devices and clinical analysis. The devices are a wristwatch that passively monitors factors such as heart rate and activity level and a sensor that passively monitors sleep habits. Added to this is a small central device that serves to charge the other devices and send their data confidentially to a secure, encrypted database owned by Alphabet.
Digital giants, technoscience and communication power are driving the development and application of big data on a global scale. And when they manage to checkmate the human operating system, they will not only be able to predict our decisions, but also to manipulate our feelings. Artificial intelligence is the flagship of the digital redefinition of organic life.
The data industry is driven by the seizure of medical processes efficiently managed by autonomous systems of healthcare personnel. This apparent efficiency imposes the verticality of an objective truth of experiences and recommendations expressed by superiorly qualified prescriptive statements. This installed truth eliminates the professional plurality capable of making judgements on the basis of human medical knowledge and experience.
Forward, a new type of medical startup, has moved to San Francisco (California) and it is a very different place. Everything is futuristic and looks more like an Apple shop than a doctor’s office. According to Forward founder Adrian Aoun, this is the future of medicine.
The concept for the medical centre of the future was developed by Aoun together with Eric Frey, an Alphabet employee and co-founder of Forward, and an Uber executive, Ilya Abyzov. The medical centre of the future is over 3500 square metres with six exam rooms equipped with interactive screens and two body scanners that collect health data via wearable sensors. There are machines ” that make physical exercise ” connected to the waiting area and skin serums. Patients sit at a glass table next to an obviously futuristic-looking body scanner that takes their vital signs: height, weight, blood pressure and temperature simply by placing two fingers on a sensor. “Design your health,” is Forward’s slogan, where the patient can have more control over their health and medical care.
A start-up like this demanded the help of many investors. Its founder has not disclosed exactly how much he has received in venture capital funding, but said that Forward has tapped some well-known investors for investment funds.
“All the data is fed into an artificial intelligence database at the Forward clinic. This data is sent to the doctor and patient via an app that they can download to their mobile devices,” said Erik Frey.
While digital technology provides a central tool for medical diagnosis and treatment, the infrastructure of healthcare processes is controlled by industry, which then concentrates the data for further exploitation. The health system occupies the role of user or client of these resources or services.
Data, algorithms and politics
“The issue of the sensitive and its expression is a fundamental political question,” says Éric Sadin.
Many generations have been born in this techno-liberal period: the digital natives, from the millennials (an anglicism used to refer to those born in the last two decades of the twentieth century), the centennials (another anglicism used to refer to people born approximately between the mid-nineties of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century, who are characterised by being digital natives), to the T generation (those born from 2010 to the present) have in common their existence through screens. In the case of Generation T, these are children who know the world, but through a digital touch screen.
Those of us who have migrated from analogue have adapted our habits to the empire of digital consumption, convinced that this is a point of no return in the course of history. This journey puts us at the crossroads of human reality versus digital reality, a relationship that calls for critical arbitration about the use of data by the technology giants and their software platforms, such as AI, that reshape the conduct of our lives in digital territory.
Critical arbitration and State-People mediation requires a political will to consider data as one of the riches with the greatest potential for the present and future of humanity and, of course, also a public knowledge of the role played by algorithms and computers that process artificial intelligence methods.
Since 1970, the Silicon Valley model has installed the idea that technology has to be immediately scalable. It is a way of innovating oriented towards making money very quickly and very fast, which has turned the Internet into a business platform consolidated in the giants and scientific and technological research dependent on those who finance it.
The world according to the empire of the algorithm is a game of multiple possibilities in relation to the meaning of the data that feed the computational processes. One of these possibilities is human free choice as the foundation of a techno-liberal manipulation that turns people into an uncritical social member.
Programs developed by machine learning – one of the methods of artificial intelligence – are making astonishing strides, detecting previously undiscovered features in medical imaging, in the agrochemical and food sector, making intelligent trades in the financial market.
Bayer/Monsanto scientists rely on the power of supercomputing and artificial intelligence to track which genes are active during the development of a soybean seed in order to design new varieties. They model agrochemical formulations with appropriate toxicity to combat superweeds, the weeds that are resistant to herbicide action.
Corporate and techno-scientific control over the reproduction of nature, deforestation, industrial and intensive agriculture profoundly alters the relationship between the human and the non-human. The disruption of ecosystems is certainly at the root of the already established cycles of new viruses.
“The monopoly of agriculture is strategic for capital and deadly for humanity and the planet,” argues Italian sociologist Lazzarato. For Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, the rise in the incidence of viruses is closely linked to the industrial model of agriculture (and in particular livestock production) and the profits of multinationals.
The Earth Bank of Codes project coordinated by the World Economic Forum (Davos Forum) develops the mapping of biological assets of the Amazon ecosystem and encodes their rights with security algorithms using Blockchain technology.
In the near future, farming communities, the food industry and researchers from international centres and universities will have to have permissions for the use of the registered assets. This development is linked to a broader project, Earth Bio Genome, which aims to sequence all 1.5 million species of plants, animals and single-celled organisms on Earth by 2030.
The crossroads between artificial intelligence algorithms and humanity requires a critical look and political decision by states to guarantee the vital balance of organic life for the development of sustainable health. It is time to discriminate phenomena with consciousness and to establish that techniques and procedures deprive us of our decision-making power. The medical profession, if it wants to be true to its health principles, will have to politicise digital technologies, automation and in particular AI. That is to say, to change the model of industry efficiency to one of state social responsibility in health.
Based on the belief that the vector of society is the individual and not the political organisation, neoliberalism will devalue politics and abandon common principles. Techno-liberalism puts our essence, our sensibility and our subjectivity at risk, it is time to wake up and transgress. It is time for the people.
Alfredo Moreno is an ICT engineer at Agentina Satelital (Arsat). ICT Professor at the National University of Moreno.
Previously Published on pressenza
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