World Economic Forum – The 4th Industrial Revolution – AI Powering Healthcare

by Jean Nehme, co-founder at Digital Surgery

To my untrained ear, the Tianjin dialect is distinct from the the local dialects of Beijing and Shanghai. A sense of urgency underpins every syllable, leaping off the front of the tongue. The pace of its spoken language is also reflected in the pace of the city, a tale which permeates across most of China – the speed of change and the vastness of opportunities.

I learned a lot in Tianjin,  where I, along with a group of UK delegates from leading health tech companies, attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the invitation of Matt Hancock, the UK’s newest Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. It was no surprise that AI, the catalyst behind the so-called “4th industrial revolution”, was heavily featured.

Healthcare companies, both Chinese and non-Chinese, presented their work on a range of AI applications, including drug discovery, symptom analysis, and early cancer detection. Leading hospital systems, including Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Healthcare, and Guangdong No.2 People’s Hospital, showcased examples of where AI was being applied across everything from answering patient inquiries, to interpreting CT scans, to medical record management. The AI toolbox, it seems, has become the answer to many of healthcare’s long-standing challenges.

It’s not without challenges, of course. The bottleneck remains data quality and data volume. AI algorithms are only as good as the training data. In order to meet the growing demand for high-quality data, healthcare systems have rapidly “digitized and datafied” interactions with patients, with positive impacts on patient experience.

In surgery, I presented our work on digitizing surgical data sets and our deployment of the first real-time AI algorithm in an operating room. We believe the impact of AI-driven “cognitive computing” in surgery today is twofold: first, it has the potential to reduce errors and therefore positively impact patient safety and clinical outcomes. Second, it has the potential to drive efficiency and therefore increase volume. Given the shortage of surgical care worldwide according to the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, this will have a major impact on global health – particularly in low and middle income countries. In the future, the implications could be even greater.

On the return journey from Tianjin to Beijing, I found myself seated next to a young Chinese AI engineer who had just returned from San Diego and was working in yet another AI company headquartered in Beijing. He, a native of Tianjin, taught me that the Tianjin dialect, like its people, is known for being lively and witty. I also learned that Tianjin, being a major northern port and gateway to the nation’s capital, is known for being commercially innovative and adaptive. As we parted ways, I couldn’t help but pair the excitement of the city and the Forum with the city’s rich history and culture. AI is full of promise, yet it remains embryonic: techniques and methodologies have just made their way from research labs to real-world applications; quality assurance and testing remain challenging, and in healthcare, this will be coupled with regulation. Most importantly, we are only starting to ask the important and tough questions that will guide our future application of AI. We are now at an intersection where corporate entities, governments, policymakers and the citizenry must ask the fundamental questions of “what will the impact of this be for generations to come?” and “will we be able to unleash its full potential while avoiding its potential pitfalls?” As I head back to my hotel, I am left thinking how do we best welcome the 4th industrial revolution in order to make the world a better place…