I am never cleanly shaven. But it’s not because I’m lazy. Or because I don’t care about my appearance. Three years ago, I stopped shaving with water to conserve H20. It might seem like a little thing, but little things add up.
When I tell people this, they sometimes scoff at me.
“Oh, come on,” they say. “Just how much water are you actually saving?”
About a gallon a day. That comes out to 365 gallons a year. That’s not a whole lot, I’ll admit. But that’s not all. What if my simple act could inspire 50 other people to do the same thing? 51 x 365 gallons = 18,615 gallons a year. That is a lot. Now maybe those 50 people each inspire another 50 people each. That’s 2,551 people x 365 = 931,115 gallons. And then those 50 people inspire another 50 — well, you get the idea…
What we're talking about here is a positive exponential outcome and an emergent phenomenon. Put simply: Small changes add up. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to AI innovation for good. I discovered this fact while researching my new book, Uber Yourself Before You Get Kodaked: A Modern Primer on A.I. for the Modern Business, with my coauthor, Michael Ashley.
Before I offer you an example of how small things with AI can add up for big good in the real world, let’s define exponential and emergent. Futurist, inventor and author Ray Kurzweil is famous for proposing the idea of exponential growth through the law of accelerating returns when it comes to emerging technology. He once said, “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.”
Now that we understand what exponential means a little better, let’s consider the second term: emergent. According to Giles Hutchins in The Nature of Business, “Emergence is when an organized, complex, and/or cohesive pattern or result arises — often unpredictably — from a series of individually simple component interactions ….” Again, to put it simply: When one plus is one is greater than two, then the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
With our definitions in place, let’s consider our real-world example of developing AI innovation for transformative good. As any American well knows, our healthcare industry is in desperate need of improvement. Though we lead the pack in medical innovation and quality care, too many people cannot afford costly policies even after the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act. Worse, medical debt is the No. 1 reason Americans file for bankruptcy.
Part of the spiraling financial problem surrounding medicine pertains to the way insurers, practitioners and hospitals view healthcare. Instead of promoting wellness, the focus of medicine often centers on illness.
Michael Moore recently exposed this idea in the movie, Sicko, in which he showed how the for-profit model leads not to healthier citizens but sicker and more financially squeezed ones. Likewise, an article by Ray Moynihan published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine states, “A lot of money can be made from healthy people who believe they are sick. Pharmaceutical companies sponsor diseases and promote them to prescribers and consumers.”
Unfortunately, the epidemic of rising costs, and yes, sicker patients, is certain to increase this year as premiums rise and insurers merge. Similar to the problem we face concerning access to clean water, this situation would seem to be a bad state of affairs — on its face. However, due to emerging and exponentially improving AI developments, we may be witnessing a transformational moment on the horizon. The very way we view medicine may change due to innovators such as Surinder Oberoi, co-founder and CEO of Ivy Health. Alongside his son Javier, the other co-founder, he sees preventative care — and wellness — as the future of the healthcare industry.
Based in Spain, Ivy Health is beginning to put a little of the power back in the patient’s hands by offering smart, connected medical devices that allow you to monitor and share your own biometric data. It offers a body analysis scale with precision sensors so wearers can get accurate measurements, including body mass index, muscle mass, basal metabolic rate, and visceral fat. The arm blood pressure monitor allows you to check your cardiovascular health in between doctor visits, and with the baby wireless thermometer, you can constantly track your little one’s vitals at all times through an app.
Though Ivy Health’s products are available only in Europe and soon in Mexico and Latin America, there is much that we as Americans can learn from this new wave of medical innovation powered by AI. Better known as telemedicine, other companies are springing up in the U.S. These businesses offer a kind of bridge between patient and practitioner. Even so, they are by no means a substitute for more intensive care, such as emergency room visits, hospitalization or surgery. “The general public still relies mostly upon the general practitioner for their health data and their ‘system check’ if you will,” says Oberoi. Ever the realist, Oberoi recognizes both the benefits of this technology and its current limitations. “AI alone will not change this, I believe. There still needs to be outside interactions to get actionable data from sensors and devices that collect this data and feed the AI component to be able to then react accordingly or recommend a path to a better outcome.”
Still, what is emergent about medical startups such as Ivy Health is the way in which its business model has the capacity to send shock waves through the current system, disrupting the way medicine is practiced — and billed. As more people become aware of how tech can give them power over their health decisions, the medical zeitgeist is poised to change, beginning with how patient visits are conducted. “Imagine you have heart issues that require you to regularly see your cardiologist,” says Oberoi. “Under the current model, that usually means calling up and trying to squeeze in an appointment. Once you get one, then you need to drive to the clinic — this, of course, usually means taking time off work. Once you get there, you're forced to sit in the waiting room, often for a long time, before ever getting in a visit. If you are lucky, you might get just a few minutes with your doctor to see you.”
This is neither the most effective, nor the most expedient, use of the patient’s or the doctor’s time. A patient might not be able to relay all of their medical data to the doctor under these conditions so the correct next steps can be taken. As we know, doctors are notoriously overworked and understaffed, and even with the best intentions on both sides, considerable room for error and miscommunication exists, leading to adverse effects. However, using the AI-powered model of self-monitoring, patients can continuously monitor themselves, saving trips to the doctor while offering their practitioner up-to-the-minute and precise, actionable biometric data.
Based on this notion, there is reason to believe such a preventative medical phenomenon could also engender exponential benefits to the system at large. What might happen if doctor visits decrease, freeing up practitioners’ time? Could insurance carriers begin offering reduced premiums to patients who invest in their own preventative care? And what if the entire healthcare model could be disrupted in such a way that wellness gained emphasis over sickness? For starters, we would have a nation — and world — filled with healthier people.
Yes, it may seem like a stretch to imagine our complicated and flawed healthcare system changing overnight due to developments from AI startups. However, this is what’s meant by “little things add up.” In our lifetimes we have seen how the entrenched retail industry has morphed, taking down once seemingly invincible bastions, such as Sears. We have watched Uber challenge the taxi transportation model and Airbnb upset the regal hotels of yore. What might AI medical startups achieve for the health industry? That future is uncertain. However, what's true is that change is in the air and that little things can add up — sometimes for good.
Neil Sahota (萨冠军), contributor, is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) subject matter expert, and Professor at UC Irvine. With 20+ years of business experience, he works with clients and business partners to create next generation products/solutions powered by AI. His work experience spans multiple industries including legal services, healthcare, life sciences, retail, travel and transportation, energy and utilities, automotive, telecommunications, media/communication, and government. Moreover, Neil is one of the few people selected for IBM's Corporate Service Corps leadership program that pairs leaders with NGOs to perform community-driven economic development projects. For his assignment, Neil lived and worked in Ningbo, China where he partnered with Chinese corporate CEOs to create a leadership development program.