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Artificial intelligence (AI) surrounds us today in everything from the autopilots in commercial airlines and self-driving cars to dating apps on our smartphones. The press has had mixed responses to the constantly emerging developments in the world of AI. In some cases, AI gets heralded as delivering tremendous breakthroughs that will usher humanity into a new golden age with headlines such as “AI Joins the Campaign Against Sex Trafficking” in the New York Times to “How AI Can Stop Cyber Attacks” in the Wall Street Journal. However, just as common and more frightening as the positive promises of AI in the media, we hear about the negative effects of AI now and in the future from potential job loss to machines to the erosion of our privacy. In spite of the negative connotation, AI promises to provide new ways to keep us safer.
AI can process massive amounts of information to find patterns faster than any individual person could, and such power can help us live safer lives. An interesting development recently emerged based on research performed in a collaboration between Harvard University and Google. In an article titled, “Machine-learned epidemiology: real-time detection of foodborne illness at scale,” published by Nature in their Digital Medicine journal in November 2018, the authors of the research describe a system they built using AI and information available from web searches and location data that they call FINDER, which stands for Foodborne IllNess DEtector in Real time. Their system looks at anonymized data that compares people’s visits to restaurants and whether their online searches in the days following their restaurant visit included terms associated with food poisoning such as diarrhea and vomiting. “FINDER applies machine learning to Google searches and location information to infer which restaurants have major food safety violations, which may be causing foodborne illness.” The researchers looked at two test cities—Chicago and Las Vegas. FINDER prompted inspections from the health department in seventy-one cases in Chicago and 61 cases in Las Vegas. These suggestions to inspect identified health code violations in 52.3% of the inspections, which was twice the amount of violations identified by a non-AI experiment that depended on individuals calling in potential food poisoning. Overall, compared to routine inspections carried out by city officials, FINDER identified restaurants were 3.16 time more likely to be unsafe than those identified by routine inspection. Interestingly, although foodborne illnesses take time to incubate (anywhere from hours to weeks depending on the contaminant), people tend to report only the most recent restaurant they ate at when they get sick. People may have eaten at several different restaurants over time after they were infected, so FINDER does a better job of identifying the true source of the food poisoning over human reporting.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), an estimated one in five Americans will get skin cancer in their lifetime. Additionally, exposure to ultraviolet, or UV, light from the sun or indoors from certain lamps such as those found in tanning beds remains the most important and controllable risk factor in developing skin cancer. Despite knowing the risks of UV exposure, many people continue to be overexposed to the sun. In an expansion of their role in beauty and skin care, the cosmetic giant L'Oréal, through their skin care line La Roche-Posay, launched in collaboration with Apple a new wearable sensor called My Skin Track UV. The sensor clips on and in conjunction with a smartphone app gathers data on exposure to both UVA and UVB light as well as pollen, pollution, and humidity. The sensor communicates without the need for a battery to the smartphone skin exposure exposure and recommends to you in real time when to take shelter from skin damaging rays. Retailing at $59.99 at the Apple Store, My Skin Track UV provides a sophisticated monitor that can not only prevent sunburn, but stave off the long-term effect of overexposure of skin to damaging elements such as wrinkling and cancer.
The proliferation of AI in every level of society and business demonstrates the power of this new technology to transform life as we know it from the advent of self-driving cars to machines driving people’s dating lives. Some aspects of AI can and should cause concern such as the erosion of jobs and privacy. However, many breakthroughs in AI provide innovative ways to protect human safety. J.C. Buzby & T. Roberts in their article “Economic Costs and Trade Impacts of Microbial Foodborne Illness,” published in World Health Statisics Quarterly, determined in the US, “ … foodborne pathogens […] cause an estimated 3.3-12.3 million cases of foodborne illness and up to 3900 deaths [per year]." To better contain food poisoning from restaurants, researchers at Harvard and Google teamed up to develop AI driven tool called FINDER that identifies restaurants with possibly unsafe food practices and points out to health authorities where to inspect. Although not commercially available, it would be very helpful to know when picking a restaurant if it had any recent correlation with food poisoning. AI in conjunction with sophisticated sensors helps to protect individuals from over exposure to damaging environmental elements. Skin health remains an important issue in public health as well for personal beauty. L'Oréal recently launched in conjunction with Apple a tiny clip on sensor that communicates with a smartphone to measure exposure to environmental elements such as UV light and warns the user when they get close to exceeding safe exposure levels. With skin cancer affecting one in five Americans, such a system can preserve beauty by staving off skin damage and wrinkles and can help prevent skin cancer. Such a project represents a great combination of technology and AI to help protect skin and overall health.
Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.
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