Your Digital Avatar May One Day Get Sick Before You Do

Artificial neurons in a concept of artificial intelligence.

(© ktsdesign/Fotolia)

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.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Visit his website at
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on and @linazeldovich.

Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!