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AI risks worsening health inequalities and harming patients, experts warn

AI risks worsening health inequalities and harming patients, experts warn
By Jess Hacker
11 May 2023

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare settings may worsen health inequalities and harm patients, experts from the UK, US, Australia, Costa Rica and Malaysia have warned.

AI has the potential to revolutionise healthcare, particularly in diagnostics, they said, but research has largely failed to consider the broader social threats it poses.

In a major report for BMJ Global Health, researchers said that AI in medicine risks causing harm to patients and worsening health inequalities by ‘incorporating existing human biases’ in ways which reinforce unequal access to healthcare.

They pointed to AI-driven pulse oximeters that overestimated blood oxygen levels in patients with darker skin, leading to their hypoxia being undertreated.

The UK Government is currently running a review into the health impact of possible race and gender bias in medical devices, including pulse oximeters.

In their new BMJ report, the researchers also claimed AI could worsen health for millions through ‘the control and manipulation of people, use of lethal autonomous weapons and the effects on work and employment’, each affecting existing social determinants of health.

Now, the research team has called for development of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – or ‘self-improving’ AI – to be stopped until ‘effective regulation’ is in place to avoid harm, suggesting it could ‘threaten humanity itself’.

They said: ‘When combined with the rapidly improving ability to distort or misrepresent reality with deepfakes, AI-driven information systems may further undermine democracy by causing a general breakdown in trust or by driving social division and conflict, with ensuing public health impacts.’

The medical and public health community must ‘engage in evidence-based advocacy for safe AI, rooted in the precautionary principle,’ they added.

They suggested that the use of AI-automation in the workplace will target low and middle-income countries greater, with unemployment strongly associated with adverse health outcomes and behaviour.

‘Furthermore, we do not know how society will respond psychologically and emotionally to a world where work is unavailable or unnecessary, nor are we thinking much about the policies and strategies that would be needed to break the association between unemployment and ill health,’ they said.

As AI alters the world of employment over the coming decades, clinical and public health expertise should be used to advocate for a ‘radical rethink’ of society to allow future generations to thrive in a world where ‘human labour is no longer a central or necessary component’ to economic production.

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