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The big ethical questions for artificial intelligence in healthcare

May 15, 2018

AI in healthcare is developing rapidly, with many applications currently in use or in development in the UK and worldwide. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics examines the current and potential applications of AI in healthcare, and the ethical issues arising from its use, in a new briefing note, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare and research, published today.

There is much hope and excitement surrounding the use of AI in healthcare. It has the potential to make healthcare more efficient and patient-friendly; speed up and reduce errors in diagnosis; help patients manage symptoms or cope with chronic illness; and help avoid human bias and error. But there are some important questions to consider: who is responsible for the decisions made by AI systems? Will increasing use of AI lead to a loss of human contact in care? What happens if AI systems are hacked?

The briefing note outlines the ethical issues raised by the use of AI in healthcare, such as:
  • the potential for AI to make erroneous decisions;

  • who is responsible when AI is used to support decision-making;

  • difficulties in validating the outputs of AI systems;

  • the risk of inherent bias in the data used to train AI systems;

  • ensuring the security and privacy of potentially sensitive data;

  • securing public trust in the development and use of AI technology;

  • effects on people's sense of dignity and social isolation in care situations;

  • effects on the roles and skill-requirements of healthcare professionals; and

  • the potential for AI to be used for malicious purposes.
Hugh Whittall, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, says:

"The potential applications of AI in healthcare are being explored through a number of promising initiatives across different sectors - by industry, health sector organisations and through government investment. While their aims and interests may vary, there are some common ethical issues that arise from their work.

Our briefing note outlines some of the key ethical issues that need to be considered if the benefits of AI technology are to be realised, and public trust maintained. These are live questions that set out an agenda for newly-established bodies like the UK Government Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The challenge will be to ensure that innovation in AI is developed and used in a ways that are transparent, that address societal needs, and that are consistent with public values."
-end-
Notes to editors

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent body that has been advising policy makers on ethical issues in bioscience and medicine for more than 25 years. As well as being a key UK partner on international networks of advisory bodies, the Council has an international reputation for advising policy-makers and stimulating debate in bioethics. The Council is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council, and Wellcome.

This is the third in a new series of bioethics briefing notes published by the Council. The previous notes focused on The search for a treatment for ageing and Whole genome sequencing of babies. We will publish further bioethics briefing notes this year on topics including the use of identification biometrics.

The Ada Lovelace Institute was announced by the Nuffield Foundation in March 2018. When the Institute becomes fully established, it will examine the ethical and social issues arising from the use of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, and ensure they are harnessed for social well-being.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics

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