Algorithms, Humans and Well-being: Understanding AI in 2019


With 5000 speakers, and participants from more than 100 countries, South By Southwest (SXSW) is one of the largest and most influential tech festivals.
Our Head of International Communications Manita Dosanjh shared her insights from the annual conglomerate at “Key Takeaways from SXSW 2019” in Politikens Hus, Copenhagen.
Read and watch her presentation from the event here.

Good afternoon. My name is Manita Dosanjh, and I run communications for LEO Innovation Lab. We’re a part of LEO Pharma that focuses on building digital technology to help people living with chronic health conditions, and our core focus right now is artificial intelligence and imaging. We recently developed a platform that can identify skin conditions from a smartphone image.

‘AI’ has become a very loaded term. There is a huge global conversation mobilising around it.  It’s a concept that people project a lot of political opinions onto, and it’s become a widely used buzzword now in many industries. So as the communications responsible for a company that is making waves in AI technology, I went to SXSW to better understand this conversation: What are the core themes running through this conversation? What are the main ethical questions being raised? And where can we shed light on some of this murkiness as propagators of AI technology?

So what did I learn?

For those of you out there that think AI is a technology that is going to change the world one day soon, I’ve got news for you. It already did.

Taking the US as an example. 85% of Americans use AI technology every day, but 20% actually realise how prevalent it is. AI is assisting, optimising, and improving the efficiency of so many elements of our lives already, and we don’t even realise it. It’s in your email when you’re using predictive completion. It’s in your phone when you use autocorrect. It’s running the ads that you see when you’re scrolling through your newsfeed. It’s in your homes if you’re using things like Alexa.

And its actually a fairly simple technology. A lot of people hear AI and they think of SkyNet, or robots taking over the world. A huge theme at SXSW this year was dispelling this myth through a discourse that can be understood by the average person (like you and me). What we often call ‘AI’ is basically just machine learning. It’s a data set, that is fed into an algorithm, that then makes predictions and decisions based on said data.

The thing to note, as I mentioned, is it’s ubiquity. I came from working in social media technology. If you had told many business leaders 10 years ago that Facebook was going to become pivotal to their business growth – they probably would have laughed at you. We’re at a similar position with AI. If you’re in business, you need to be prioritising how this tech will affect your industry. If you’re a member of the media, you should be covering it to help keep us informed.

And why the urgency?

It’s developing fast. I thought I knew how fast because I work with it every day, until I went to SXSW.

AI is moving beyond assisting us, making our lives more efficient.

I was lucky enough to make it in to a presentation from some leading thinkers researching AI and artistic expression. I’m going to play an audio file for – and as you listen, I want you to keep in mind that this piece of music was created by a machine.

So this piece of music came from Google AI division, where an algorithm was trained on a data set of piano music to see if it could mimic the inflections of artistic expression. I think it’s safe to say it did.

So should we be scared? No.

AI is already doing a lot of good in the world. Take the healthcare crisis. The WHO predicts a shortage of 13m healthcare worked by 2035. And this is not a far-off problem. Already in Denmark, the number of patients being handled per doctor has increased by 70% in the last 10 years. We’re moving into a world where there aren’t enough doctors to treat us all.

AI can change that. I saw demo from a company called 3Derm, a telemedicine platform that is increasing the capability of GPs – enabling them to handle more patients more easily, so they don’t have to be referred to specialist and meet a bottleneck. We can expand the capabilities of our healthcare system with AI, so we don’t have to move into a phase of extreme fatigue from doctors.

So what can we do as industry leaders, as media, or as policy makers in the age of AI? How should we be thinking about the possibilities and the risks?

I learned at SXSW that we still don’t have a consensus around the ethical frameworks that need to be instilled in AI. To cite a person who is very opinionated on this matter:

There’s a huge risk that AI just reproduces the biases that we have already… we need to make sure we have an ethics framework.”

– Margrethe Vestager

At LEO, when we first built our AI platform, we were incredibly excited when it was able to identify skin conditions correctly. A huge momentous occasion when the thing actually worked. And then we realised that it only worked on certain types of skin. The platform is English, so it was trained on user images from primarily English speaking parts of the world, leading to a bias for caucasian skin. So we changed that. We started to recruit users in parts of the world that represented all stages of the Fitzpatrik scale – the Middle East, parts of Africa, parts of Asia. We needed to identify and eliminate bias. Our goal is to improve the well-being of people living with chronic skin conditions, and to achieve that goal, we needed to change our approach to development. It wasn’t enough to have a working AI platform. It needed to be a platform that works for everyone.

And I’d like to leave you with that thought. How can we ensure that the goal driving AI development is not simply development itself, but to improve human well-being? Consider this – as an industry leader, how can you play an active role in how AI is shaping your industry’s future? And as a journalist or communicator, how can you ensure you’re keeping up to date with the development of AI technology, so people are informed enough to understand this technology?

Personally, I take the stance of being optimistic about what AI can do, but still keeping a critical eye. What is your role?

By Manita Dosanjh, Head of International Communications

About South By Southwest

South By Southwest (SXSW) began in 1987 and is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas, United States.