I-DAIR promises responsible solutions from new health technology

Credit: Keystone/Gaetan Bally

I-DAIR aims to promote collaboration on research into digital health and artificial intelligence (AI).

While digital and AI technologies are moving into more aspects of our economies, societies and personal lives, when it comes to health, their potential is often still lagging - to the point that in some cases, people can even face “death by digital exclusion”, in the words of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Chief Scientist, Soumya Swaminathan.

Now, a Geneva-based network of scientists, foundations and health actors has launched a new global platform to facilitate collaboration on research into digital health and artificial intelligence (AI).

The founders of the new International Digital Health & AI Research Collaborative (I-DAIR) network envision it as a broad-based multinational collaboration, described as “a distributed CERN for digital health” - a reference to the broad international collaboration on nuclear particle research hosted in nearby France.

The platform will also focus on promoting diversity and inclusion in scientific research by creating “hubs of collaboration” across different geographies where researchers can come together.

I-DAIR is now in its incubation phase at the Graduate Institute Geneva’s Global Health Centre, and will explore how data and AI can be used to solve health problems through a series of research projects.

Backed by the Fondation Botnar, partners on the platform include the WHO, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, PATH, and the Foundation for Innovative & New Diagnostics (FIND).

The official launch of the platform is earmarked for 2022. The first hubs, after Geneva, are planned in Nairobi, New Delhi, Singapore and Tunis.

“We want countries to use digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and data wisely, to...achieve the SDGs, because the goal of all of technology is to help you to achieve something that's good for people,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the WHO, speaking at the launch on Tuesday. “This global pandemic is definitely going to set back most countries achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and we should be looking for ways of leapfrogging using technology.”

However, Dr Swaminathan also drew attention to the importance of validating, testing and sharing results related to emerging digital health technologies, and said the launch of I-DAIR’s global research database is an important step to prioritising this.

“In the area of digital...people do not seem to really look at benchmarking at the same kind of strict standards that we would apply to other health products before we roll them out,” said Dr Swaminathan. “Just because it's digital, doesn't mean it is doing good.”

She also praised I-DAIR for helping to avoid “death by digital exclusion” by ensuring data and AI can be used to bridge health inequality gaps. “In all of these new cutting edge technologies, we need to keep in mind the social and ethical aspect as well, because there is a risk that you would exclude the same population that gets excluded from other conventional delivery systems,” she said.

Speaking at the launch event, Peter Piot, director of the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, stressed how Covid-19 had made the need for innovative solutions for health challenges all the more urgent.

“Compared to many other industries, health has really not fully embraced AI and digital solutions as yet. Certainly not culturally and mentally, but also not really in terms of practical solutions,” Piot said.

“Often a crisis such as COVID-19 is an opportunity for a game changer...for introducing new ways of working, so let's not miss this opportunity,” he added.

Director of the Graduate Institute Marie-Laure Salles also emphasised the need for “ambitious new forms of scientific collaboration” to achieve progress while anticipating ways in which “we can collaboratively work to increase the chance of maximising the benefits to society.