Artificial intelligence is everywhere, just not in the way you think it is.
These networks, loosely designed after the human brain, are interconnected computers that have the ability to "learn."
"There's the perception of AI in the glossy magazines," says Anders Kofod-Petersen, a professor of Artificial Intelligence at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "That's the sci-fi version. It resembles the small guy in the movie AI. It might be benevolent or it might be evil, but it's generally intelligent and conscious."
"And this is, of course, as far from the truth as you can possibly get."
What Exactly Is Artificial Intelligence, Anyway?
Let's start with how you got to this piece. You likely came to it through social media. Your Facebook account, Twitter feed, or perhaps a Google search. AI influences all of those things, machine learning helping to run the algorithms that decide what you see, when, and where. AI isn't the little humanoid figure; it's the system that controls the figure.
"AI is being confused with robotics," Eleonore Pauwels, Director of the Anticipatory Intelligence Lab with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, says. "What AI is right now is a data optimization system, a very powerful data optimization system."
The revolution in recent years hasn't come from the method scientists and other researchers use. The general ideas and philosophies have been around since the late 1960s. Instead, the big change has been the dramatic increase in computing power, primarily due to the development of neural networks. These networks, loosely designed after the human brain, are interconnected computers that have the ability to "learn." An AI, for example, can be taught to spot a picture of a cat by looking at hundreds of thousands of pictures that have been labeled "cat" and "learning" what a cat looks like. Or an AI can beat a human at Go, an achievement that just five years ago Kofod-Petersen thought wouldn't be accomplished for decades.
"It's very difficult to argue that something is intelligent if it can't learn, and these algorithms are getting pretty good at learning stuff. What they are not good at is learning how to learn."
Medicine is the field where this expertise in perception tasks might have the most influence. It's already having an impact as iPhones use AI to detect cancer, Apple watches alert the wearer to a heart problem, AI spots tuberculosis and the spread of breast cancer with a higher accuracy than human doctors, and more. Every few months, another study demonstrates more possibility. (The New Yorker published an article about medicine and AI last year, so you know it's a serious topic.)
But this is only the beginning. "I personally think genomics and precision medicine is where AI is going to be the biggest game-changer," Pauwels says. "It's going to completely change how we think about health, our genomes, and how we think about our relationship between our genotype and phenotype."
The Fundamental Breakthrough That Must Be Solved
To get there, however, researchers will need to make another breakthrough, and there's debate about how long that will take. Kofod-Petersen explains: "If we want to move from this narrow intelligence to this broader intelligence, that's a very difficult problem. It basically boils down to that we haven't got a clue about what intelligence actually is. We don't know what intelligence means in a biological sense. We think we might recognize it but we're not completely sure. There isn't a working definition. We kind of agree with the biologists that learning is an aspect of it. It's very difficult to argue that something is intelligent if it can't learn, and these algorithms are getting pretty good at learning stuff. What they are not good at is learning how to learn. They can learn specific tasks but we haven't approached how to teach them to learn to learn."
In other words, current AI is very, very good at identifying that a picture of a cat is, in fact, a cat – and getting better at doing so at an incredibly rapid pace – but the system only knows what a "cat" is because that's what a programmer told it a furry thing with whiskers and two pointy ears is called. If the programmer instead decided to label the training images as "dogs," the AI wouldn't say "no, that's a cat." Instead, it would simply call a furry thing with whiskers and two pointy ears a dog. AI systems lack the explicit inference that humans do effortlessly, almost without thinking.
Pauwels believes that the next step is for AI to transition from supervised to unsupervised learning. The latter means that the AI isn't answering questions that a programmer asks it ("Is this a cat?"). Instead, it's almost like it's looking at the data it has, coming up with its own questions and hypothesis, and answering them or putting them to the test. Combining this ability with the frankly insane processing power of the computer system could result in game-changing discoveries.
In the not-too-distant future, a doctor could run diagnostics on a digital avatar, watching which medical conditions present themselves before the person gets sick in real life.
One company in China plans to develop a way to create a digital avatar of an individual person, then simulate that person's health and medical information into the future. In the not-too-distant future, a doctor could run diagnostics on a digital avatar, watching which medical conditions presented themselves – cancer or a heart condition or anything, really – and help the real-life version prevent those conditions from beginning or treating them before they became a life-threatening issue.
That, obviously, would be an incredibly powerful technology, and it's just one of the many possibilities that unsupervised AI presents. It's also terrifying in the potential for misuse. Even the term "unsupervised AI" brings to mind a dystopian landscape where AI takes over and enslaves humanity. (Pick your favorite movie. There are dozens.) This is a concern, something for developers, programmers, and scientists to consider as they build the systems of the future.
The Ethical Problem That Deserves More Attention
But the more immediate concern about AI is much more mundane. We think of AI as an unbiased system. That's incorrect. Algorithms, after all, are designed by someone or a team, and those people have explicit or implicit biases. Intentionally, or more likely not, they introduce these biases into the very code that forms the basis for the AI. Current systems have a bias against people of color. Facebook tried to rectify the situation and failed. These are two small examples of a larger, potentially systemic problem.
It's vital and necessary for the people developing AI today to be aware of these issues. And, yes, avoid sending us to the brink of a James Cameron movie. But AI is too powerful a tool to ignore. Today, it's identifying cats and on the verge of detecting cancer. In not too many tomorrows, it will be on the forefront of medical innovation. If we are careful, aware, and smart, it will help simulate results, create designer drugs, and revolutionize individualize medicine. "AI is the only way to get there," Pauwels says.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.