COVID-19: Urgent need for a ‘strong regulatory and ethical framework’ for AI in healthcare

PACE’s rapporteur on Artificial Intelligence in healthcare, Selin Sayek Böke (Turkey, SOC), has again urged a “strong regulatory and ethical framework” for AI in health to ensure public trust, underlining the need for robust data governance, clear consent procedures, and a healthy balance between the public and private sectors.

She was speaking at a hearing on the topic during a video-conference meeting of PACE’s Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development. “The aim is to maximise the benefits of AI while minimizing intrusion into privacy,” she pointed out.

Effy Vayena, Professor and Chair of Bioethics, Health Ethics and Policy Lab in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, gave an overview of research in this area, and her assessment of how well it was being applied, notably in the emergency situation of COVID-19.

“We need a more coherent system of governance that begins with the collection of data, but continues consistently through the whole process of developing and deploying AI,” said Ms Vayena. “I would call for a comprehensive system of governance that can cover the whole process from beginning to end.”

Her team had assessed at least 84 sets of ethics guidelines for AI, she said, and most seemed to converge around a few basic principles, including transparency, fairness and safety. “A lot of good work has been done on the principles to apply, the foundations. But the problem is how to move from theory - serious and solid theory - to practice.”

She gave the example of health-related wellness apps, where her research showed “a very messy space” in terms of the regulatory environment. Developers would create the apps, and only later others would assess them against existing guidelines: “Despite our long discussions and much scholarship, the practical application is lacking.”

Turning to the new contact-tracing apps being developed for COVID-19, she said a small handful of big-tech companies “hold the keys to the house”. “Governments can’t do it without them, but there is an incredible concentration of power in the hands of only a few players,” she pointed out. She called for clearer conditions to enable public and private to work together in the domain of AI so as to protect human rights, ensure accountability and optimise benefits for all users.