The NHS collects vast amounts of data. It must be used in imaginative ways that respect privacy and make life better for patients and health workers
Technology helps us live better and for longer; in fact it has been doing so since the birth of modern medicine. And as each new technology comes into use, it turns out to have medical uses, even though these are not always the ones that are sold hardest: in the 1920s the American press was full of advertisements for the health benefits of radium, which was then a mysterious and powerful substance just as artificial intelligence (AI) is today. AI won’t work miracles or make death unnecessary by letting people upload their minds into silicon, but it might catch cancers earlier. The prime minister on Monday said that 30,000 lives a year would be saved by 2030, mostly through earlier and more accurate diagnosis. This is about 10% of the annual cancer death rate in Britain. It is possible to object that the money would be better spent on less glamorous initiatives, such as hiring enough care workers, nurses and doctors and paying them all properly. But while that is certainly very urgent, there is no need to choose between the two approaches. We need both.
At the same time, one of Britain’s biggest health trusts, University College London Hospitals (UCLH), announced a partnership with the Alan Turing Institute, a body that collects the AI expertise of British universities, which looks realistically promising. It starts from the question of how the NHS can use AI, rather than asking how AI can rescue the NHS, which of course it can’t. There is a huge contrast here with some of the earlier attempts in this direction, in particular the partnership between Google’s subsidiary DeepMind and the Royal Free hospital, which was widely and rightly criticised because Google gained access to the benefits of data that had been collected from patients and by the trust without any of the patients having consented to this. Indeed, they could not have given informed consent in many cases, because the use to which their data would be put was literally unthinkable at the time when it was collected. Privacy alone is an inadequate framework in which to place all the problems that arise with the collection and exploitation of data.