The Future of Data According to Barack Obama

The Future of Data According to barack obama

“The market alone can't solve our health-care woes.”

— Barack Obama

THE FASCINATING THING about the future is that it’s constantly changing. You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect, which is the idea that a single beat of a butterfly’s wings could set off a chain reaction that caused a tornado on the other side of the world.

When the future is in a state of flux, there are no guarantees. That also means that it’s impossible to accurately predict the future because even if you had a time machine and could travel ahead to it, coming back and sharing that information would create a paradox and the future that was visited could no longer exist. But that’s a problem for science fiction authors and theoretical physicists, and far beyond my remit here.

Still, I think it’s important to start a post like this with a disclaimer, if that’s what the above is, because if anyone says they can predict the future with any degree of accuracy, they’re wrong. As Gandhi said, the future depends on what we do in the present. In other words, the future is what we make of it.

The vision of the future that I’m going to share here is just one vision, but it’s the vision that I hold and which I hope I’ll be able to convey to you, too. There are no guarantees that any of this will happen, but if it does happen it’ll be because we’ve banded together to make it so. Let’s take a look at what might be in store.


Data as the Future

Edward Cole, Chief Strategy Officer of Atlas City, recently penned an article in which he said that mastering data is “almost everything” when it comes to the future of healthcare. He starts by pointing to the WannaCry ransomware attack that cost the NHS £92 million and forced the cancellation of 19,000 appointments. Hospitals and medical facilities are obvious targets for cyber attackers because they store large amounts of highly sensitive, confidential information. And yet despite that, the UK’s National Health Service was drastically underprepared.

According to Cole, healthcare practitioners are up against a trilemma in which they’re required to keep patient data private, to ensure that it isn’t tampered with and to prevent unauthorized parties from being able to access it. “The good news,” Cole says, “is that despite apprehension and conservatism, a courageous, technology-led transformation is underway. Indeed, [Secretary of State for Health and Social Care] Matt Hancock’s sharpened focus on innovation – evidenced by his setting £412 million aside to transform technology in hospitals – is in part fueling confidence.”

Of course, new technologies bring new challenges, most notably when it comes to adoption. For example, blockchain is well-suited to the delivery of a real-time health system, which would allow doctors “to see and act in real-time to improve care outcomes, patient engagement and administrative processes; a world where diagnosis and prognosis is delivered by a combination of technology, human expertise and pastoral care.”

To support the idea, Cole points out that blockchain-based healthcare ledgers would transfer the ownership of the data away from a central authority and into a network of customers, GPs, care professionals, service providers and suppliers.

“For the patient,” Cole says, “it’s about empowerment. Patients are inherently nervous and suspicious [about] how their private data is handled. There’s growing concern that both governments and large global organizations are increasingly complacent and disrespectful when handling their data. We are at the dawn of a ‘new data age’. To realize the benefits of exponential data growth, we must be able to trust it.”


Obama’s Vision

I recently came across a video that tech magazine Wired shared back in October 2016 when then-president Barack Obama acted as their guest editor. In the video, Obama discusses the future of artificial intelligence with Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadlich and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito.

“AI is seeping into our lives in all sorts of ways that we just don’t notice,” Obama says. “And part of the reason is because the way we think about AI is colored by popular culture and by science fiction.”

It’s worth noting that Obama also highlights the difference between general AI and specialized AI. “Specialized AI is really the stuff we’ve been doing for quite some time,” Obama says. “We’re just getting better and better at it. That’s figuring out using algorithms whether computers can figure out increasingly complex tasks. And we’re seeing that happen in every aspect of our lives from medicine to transportation to how electricity is distributed. It promises to create a vastly more productive and efficient economy and if properly harnessed can generate enormous prosperity for people, can cure diseases that we haven’t seen before and can make us safer because it eliminates inherent human error. But it also has its downsides.”

General AI is more like the kind of thing that you read about in a science fiction novel, such as the supercomputer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the moment, we’re not technologically capable of creating true general AI, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be thinking about the potential implications of it and taking steps to put the infrastructure in place that we’ll need. We should start to think about the ethical implications, too.

A classic example of this is the idea of a self-driving car with an adult passenger inside it that’s forced to make a decision. A crash is inevitable, but it can either mow down a pregnant woman and her two-year-old child but save the driver or it can kill the driver and save the woman and her child. Even if we forget for now about the ethical dilemma that such a choice presents, we can still start to ask questions about where the responsibility for that choice ultimately lies. Is the AI an entity unto itself, or is the developer ultimately responsible? What if there’s a team involved? And what about the CEO? These are difficult questions, which is why we need to start thinking about them now instead of waiting until it’s too late.

“At Media Lab,” Ito explains, in discussion with Obama and Dadlich, “we’re using the term ‘extended intelligence’ because we don’t think it’s going to be us and an AI, the AI will be built into the laws, into the government and into society.”

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Want to learn more?

I talk more about new technologies and their impact on the healthcare industry in my book, The Future of Healthcare: Humans and Machines Partnering for Better Outcomes. Click here to buy yourself a copy.