By Michael Jordan (Medium),
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the mantra of the current era. The phrase is intoned by technologists, academicians, journalists and venture capitalists alike. As with many phrases that cross over from technical academic fields into general circulation, there is significant misunderstanding accompanying the use of the phrase. But this is not the classical case of the public not understanding the scientists — here the scientists are often as befuddled as the public. The idea that our era is somehow seeing the emergence of an intelligence in silicon that rivals our own entertains all of us — enthralling us and frightening us in equal measure. And, unfortunately, it distracts us.
There is a different narrative that one can tell about the current era. Consider the following story, which involves humans, computers, data and life-or-death decisions, but where the focus is something other than intelligence-in-silicon fantasies. When my spouse was pregnant 14 years ago, we had an ultrasound. There was a geneticist in the room, and she pointed out some white spots around the heart of the fetus. “Those are markers for Down syndrome,” she noted, “and your risk has now gone up to 1 in 20.” She further let us know that we could learn whether the fetus in fact had the genetic modification underlying Down syndrome via an amniocentesis. But amniocentesis was risky — the risk of killing the fetus during the procedure was roughly 1 in 300. Being a statistician, I determined to find out where these numbers were coming from. To cut a long story short, I discovered that a statistical analysis had been done a decade previously in the UK, where these white spots, which reflect calcium buildup, were indeed established as a predictor of Down syndrome. But I also noticed that the imaging machine used in our test had a few hundred more pixels per square inch than the machine used in the UK study. I went back to tell the geneticist that I believed that the white spots were likely false positives — that they were literally “white noise.” She said “Ah, that explains why we started seeing an uptick in Down syndrome diagnoses a few years ago; it’s when the new machine arrived.”
We didn’t do the amniocentesis, and a healthy girl was born a few months later. But the episode troubled me, particularly after a back-of-the-envelope calculation convinced me that many thousands of people had gotten that diagnosis that same day worldwide, that many of them had opted for amniocentesis, and that a number of babies had died needlessly. And this happened day after day until it somehow got fixed. The problem that this episode revealed wasn’t about my individual medical care; it was about a medical system that measured variables and outcomes in various places and times, conducted statistical analyses, and made use of the results in other places and times. The problem had to do not just with data analysis per se, but with what database researchers call “provenance” — broadly, where did data arise, what inferences were drawn from the data, and how relevant are those inferences to the present situation? While a trained human might be able to work all of this out on a case-by-case basis, the issue was that of designing a planetary-scale medical system that could do this without the need for such detailed human oversight.