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Microsoft exec says coronavirus could spark big shift for AI in health care

Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Microsoft chief technology officer Kevin Scott grew up fascinated by the 1960s Apollo space program and then-President John F. Kennedy's vision of a moon shot. Now, he envisions just as ambitious a project taking shape as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Just as the U.S. government significantly invested to put Neil Armstrong and others on the moon by 1969 -- $200 billion in today's dollars by his estimate -- Scott said similar funding in artificial intelligence technology could be a difference-maker for our nation's battered health care system.

Scott, 48, whose new book about AI will be released Tuesday, said using the technology to detect underlying health conditions could not only help treat patients and prevent the spread of future pandemics, but also reduce care costs for Americans, tens of millions of which are uninsured.

"Instead of a 'moon shot,' our moon shot should be something like radically transforming health care for the public good," Scott said. "We all know the cost of delivering ubiquitous, high-quality health care is very high and growing faster than (gross domestic product).

"So, if you want to change that calculus, you are going to have to have some sort of technology intervene that will help change the shape of the curve. I think AI, if we make a deliberate set of investments, can make than happen."

Scott wasn't focused on health care in "Reprogramming The American Dream: From Rural America to Silicon Valley -- Making AI Serve Us All" (Harper Collins), co-written with Greg Shaw, but feels the pandemic has hastened the urgency behind themes within the book. He sees massive job losses caused by the coronavirus forcing a reckoning in which the public and governments must reimagine core elements of our health care system -- and sooner than anyone expects.

 

"I think our reaction to this horrible pandemic we're having now could produce a wave of investment and innovation in biotechnology that defines the next 75 years," he said. "The way that the industrialization of the modern world post-World War II has defined the past 75 years."

On the pandemic, he added: "If you imagine the safety net that people need right now, given the economic disruption, having that ubiquitous, cheap, high-quality health care would make an enormous difference in people's lives."

What separates Scott from theorists and activists seeking domestic health care transformation is he's a powerful executive of a global tech leader already applying AI to medical science -- including within the coronavirus fight.

Scott and Microsoft have spent recent weeks working with Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies on using AI to map the body's immune system and how it reacts to individual diseases. Adaptive hopes to soon get a test for COVID-19 -- the illness caused by the novel coronavirus -- into clinical trials, and having a detailed map of the body's unique reactions to it would hasten that process.

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