For the myriad applications of artificial intelligence, Eric Schmidt, the onetime Google CEO, sees one area where it’s poised to unleash the most sweeping changes.
“When I try to market the importance of AI, I say that AI will have its biggest impact in biology and health, because biology is so complicated,” Schmidt said Tuesday at STAT’s Health Tech Summit.
But to fully unlock AI’s full potential, there need to be policy changes, Schmidt said in a conversation with Linda Henry, the CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners, STAT’s parent company. For example, people generally have to agree to let their anonymized health data be used for research purposes, but that limits how much information is available for algorithms to glean insights from — and in turn how much can be learned about human health, Schmidt argued.
“I’d like the privacy rules to be changed so it’s opt-out for research,” said Schmidt, the co-founder of Schmidt Futures who in June will take over as board chair of the genetics powerhouse the Broad Institute.
Schmidt continued: “All the big health care systems have a great deal of information about their patients, and those, properly, are controlled by HIPAA and lawyers and so forth and so on, so if you want to do research, you can do research with 50 people or 100 people, but it’s very hard to get a large, population-wide study that’s big enough for these algorithms to really play off.”
He made it clear he does not feel the data privacy rules should be changed for commercial or other uses.
Only with AI and machine learning can scientists tackle the massive data quandaries that biology poses, Schmidt argued. He highlighted, for example, a project Broad scientists are involved with that aims to understand how cells communicate with each other, “so we can discover the language of life.”
“The only way to do that is to take a large amount of experiments and then use AI to look for patterns that are not apparent to you and me,” Schmidt said. “Because people have already looked at them — they haven’t seen them — but the computer can see them.”
Schmidt also paid tribute to Eli Broad, the philanthropist and founder of the Broad Institute, who died April 30. He said Broad deserved “a fair amount of credit” for helping build the scientific and biotech hub of Kendall Square by establishing and endowing a research center that brought together the area’s top scientists.
“Eli Broad took a pile of money and put it on top of a building,” was how Schmidt said he simplistically described Broad’s contribution. But in doing so, he created an opportunity for faculty from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and affiliated hospitals “to compete for labs and money and so forth because they could build an interdisciplinary solution inside the Broad.”
During the conversation, Henry also raised Schmidt’s unforeseen role in the formation of STAT. In 2014, Henry’s husband, John Henry, attended a dinner hosted by Schmidt where attendees discussed why Boston was losing out to Silicon Valley as the country’s preeminent tech center. Henry then realized that Boston’s dominant role in the life sciences was a story that was not, as he later wrote, “being covered by a serious, standalone news organization committed to the kind of in-depth journalism that has been a hallmark of The Boston Globe,” which Henry had purchased about a year before Schmidt’s dinner.
That dinner, Linda Henry told Schmidt on Tuesday, served as the inspiration for STAT’s founding.
“You guys did the work,” Schmidt replied. “Thank you for the credit.”