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Health-Tech Snake Oil

Armed with big-data analytics, machine learning, and other novel methods, US Big Tech firms are getting into the health-care game, promising vast improvements in health outcomes and efficiency. What could possibly go wrong?

LONDON – In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, David Feinberg, the head of Google Health and a self-professed astrology buff, enthused that, “If you believe me that all we are doing is organizing information to make it easier for your doctor, I’m going to get a little paternalistic here: I’m never going to let that get opted out.” In other words, patients will soon have no choice but to receive personalized clinical horoscopes based on their own medical histories and inferences drawn from a growing pool of patient records. But even if we want such a world, we should take a hard look at what today’s health-tech proponents are really selling.

In recent years, most of the United States’ Big Tech firms – along with many startups, the Big Pharma companies, and others – have entered the health-tech sector. With big-data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and other novel methods, they promise to cut costs for struggling health-care systems, revolutionize how doctors make medical decisions, and save us from ourselves. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, it turns out. In Weapons of Math Destruction, data scientist Cathy O’Neil lists many examples of how algorithms and data can fail us in unsuspecting ways. When transparent data-feedback algorithms were applied to baseball, they worked better than expected; but when similar models are used in finance, insurance, law enforcement, and education, they can be highly discriminatory and destructive.

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