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BusinesDay: AI’s transformative power for healthcare in Africa

It is our collective moral and ethical duty to regulate and control the trajectory of advanced intelligent systems.

By Johan Steyn, 12 April 2022

Cognitive computing — or “machines that can see, learn and think” — is revolutionising medical care across the world.

Increased processing speed, cloud computing and the advent of the smart technology era are democratising medical care. Computer imaging capabilities, nanomedicine and brain-computer interface technology have the potential to usher in what some call a transhuman world.

The very definition of what it means to be human is changing. Increased prosperity, longevity and artificially created body and brain parts are no longer the exclusive domain of science fiction. Human and cyborg consciousness will combine in a new age for homo sapiens.

It is our collective moral and ethical duty to regulate and control the trajectory of advanced intelligent systems. We need to ensure that the “have-nots” are not left behind. The developing world, plagued by disease and poverty, is the casualty of the so-called digital divide.

The fastest-growing population in the world, with the youngest demography globally, Africa and its people face the ghastly risk of being left behind in the race for technological superiority. The global medical community must co-operate and ensure that the beautiful continent shares in the vast benefits brought on by new technologies: financial prosperity and adequate medical care.

Researchers have identified several issues with the use of AI tools in real-world hospitals. In other words, an algorithm that has been validated on a subset of patients may not perform as well on a different subset. Many are advocating for clinical AI to be trained and validated on a diverse set of patient data from patients of various genders, ages and ethnic backgrounds.

The data used to develop and test the majority of clinical AI is potentially widening the disparity between rich and poor. Given the significance of Chinese and American machine-learning technology and research in the sector, the skewed patient data is unsurprising. Researchers from these countries have authored more than 40% of clinical AI articles, as they naturally gravitate towards patient data that is nearest to them and easiest to gather.

The potential for AI to improve healthcare in low- and middle-income nations has received much attention, and it could prove to be effective in supporting Africa in conquering disease preventive and treatment issues.

A report titled “Reimagining global health through artificial intelligence: the roadmap to AI maturity” by the Novartis Foundation and Microsoft, states that investment in data and AI will be a critical tool for improving health systems in Africa during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The continent’s most critical challenge is a lack of medical personnel. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3% of the world’s health workers, the region accounts for 25% of the global illness burden and only 12% of the world's population, according to the UN Development Programme. The situation would deteriorate further as a result of a projected global shortage of health staff, which is expected to reach 18-million by 2030.

Since 1972, when the first medical AI system, MYCIN, was constructed, more advanced systems have been developed. Medical professionals can now use AI technology to assist in disease identification and treatment, as well as forecast disease progression and aid in clinical decision-making.

Without a doubt, AI has the potential to be a transformative tool in healthcare in Africa. In the smart technology era, no-one should be left behind.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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