Forge AI Health

Friday Roundup

The Forge AI Health Friday Roundup highlights the week’s news and publications related to artificial intelligence, data science, public health, and clinical research.

November 5, 2021

In today’s Roundup: confronting AI applications that discriminate by appearance; strong showing for experimental oral COVID therapy; health burdens of air pollution may be worse than thought; HPV vaccine quashes cervical cancer in England; machine learning meets microscopy; alarming attrition among lab staff; a theory of justice for AI; much more:

Deep Breaths

A random, jumbled heap of moveable type of different typefaces and fonts.
Amador Loureiro via Unsplash
  • “The letter M’s characteristic up-and-down shape comes from the Egyptian hieroglyphic for water. This was adopted into the Phoenician alphabet as the letter mem, then adopted into the Greek alphabet as the letter mu, and from there via Latin into English.” This delightful A-to-Z Haggard Hawks Twitter thread is full of small revelations about the history of alphabets and the etymology of English.
  • “The Industrial Revolution of the early to mid-19th century and applications of scientific method to medicine in the early 1900s, combined with the absence of regulations, led to the proliferation of contraptions and so-called miracle cure production, advertising, and use. Despite court-ordered injunctions against their use, many quack devices had devoted adherents.” The fantastic, the fraudulent, the downright radioactive: at the AMA Journal of Ethics, Jorie Braunold guides readers through a yikes-worthy gallery of quack medical devices and pseudoscientific gizmos.


Closeup photograph of a human eye with a ring of lights reflected in the iris via Unsplash
  • “Physiognomic AI, we contend, is the practice of using computer software and related systems to infer or create hierarchies of an individual’s body composition, protected class status, perceived character, capabilities, and future social outcomes based on their physical or behavioral characteristics. Physiognomic and phrenological logics are intrinsic to the technical mechanism of computer vision applied to humans.” A policy paper authored by Luke Stark and Jevan Hutson and available as a preprint from SSRN addresses the role of computer vision technologies in reanimating discredited and harmful branches of pseudoscience that attempt to infer moral and intellectual qualities from a person’s physical appearance and presentation, and advocate for legal action to curtail it.
  • “We measure everything we can about the cell’s appearance. We’re building on the basic observation that a cell’s structure and overall appearance reflects its history — how it’s been treated by its environment. If images reflect the state of a cell, then if we could quantify these and scale them up, looking for those patterns should be really useful.” Quanta’s Esther Landhuis interviews computational biologist Anne Carpenter, whose work focuses on applying machine learning techniques to classifying microscopic images of cells.
  • At Nature Communications, a study by Owen and colleagues reveals that the workings of neural networks in human brains generate complex (and beautiful!) fractal patterns – patterns that dissipate when complex thinking is disrupted. A summary of the paper’s findings is available from the National Science Foundation.
  • “This paper explores the relationship between artificial intelligence and principles of distributive justice….it holds that the basic structure of society should be understood as a composite of socio-technical systems, and that the operation of these systems is increasingly shaped and influenced by AI. As a consequence, egalitarian norms of justice apply to the technology when it is deployed in these contexts. These norms entail that the relevant AI systems must meet a certain standard of public justification, support citizens rights, and promote substantively fair outcomes…” A somewhat unusual preprint (for ArXiv, anyway) by Iason Gabriel develops a “theory of justice” for artificial intelligence, relying in part on a Rawlsian lens to focus the argument (H/T @wsisaac).


Photograph of an industrial facility with smokestacks discharging clouds of vapor into the air.
Patrick Henry via Unsplash
  • “At the map’s intimate scale, it’s possible to see up close how a massive chemical plant near a high school in Port Neches, Texas, laces the air with benzene, an aromatic gas that can cause Or how a manufacturing facility in New Castle, Delaware, for years blanketed a day care playground with ethylene oxide, a highly toxic chemical that can lead to lymphoma and breast cancer. Our analysis found that ethylene oxide is the biggest contributor to excess industrial cancer risk from air pollutants nationwide.” A groundbreaking, data-driven investigative report by ProPublica’s Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw, Lisa Song, Maya Miller, and Kathleen Flynn reveals that air pollution may be threatening the health of substantially more communities than previously understood and exposes potential shortcomings in the protections afforded by the Clean Air Act.
  • “The alarms are now clamoring. In the United States, more than 129,800 syphilis cases were recorded in 2019, double the case count of five years prior. In the same time period, cases of congenital syphilis quadrupled: 1,870 babies were born with the disease; 128 died.” A ProPublica investigation by Caroline Chen documents a worrying rise in syphilis infections in the US – one that is hitting infants particularly hard.
  • “The Pfizer medicine, known by the code name PF-07321332 or simply ’332, reduced hospitalization by 89% compared to placebo when given with the HIV drug ritonavir within three days of symptom onset. The medicine also reduced the chance that patients would die. There were 7 deaths out of 385 patients in the placebo group, and none in the 389-patient group that received the medicines.” STAT News’ Matthew Herper reports that the antiviral COVID therapy being developed and tested by Pfizer the second such oral therapy for COVID to recently emerge – has shown encouraging results in clinical trials, although the data have yet to undergo peer review.
  • “We observed a substantial reduction in cervical cancer and incidence of CIN3 in young women after the introduction of the HPV immunisation programme in England, especially in individuals who were offered the vaccine at age 12–13 years. The HPV immunisation programme has successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women born since Sept 1, 1995.” A research article by Falcaro and colleagues published this week in Lancet highlights the impact of vaccination for HPV on rates of cervical cancer in England.
  • “Aside from the physical toll that untreated dental problems can exert on individuals, there is a collective societal and economic cost that we all bear long-term….Studies estimate that over $45 billion is lost in productivity in the United States each year because of untreated oral disease….Adults lose work hours seeking care or visiting the emergency department—not to mention that preventive care is much more cost-effective to provide. There’s also the stigma, shame, and difficulty individuals with oral health problems, such as tooth loss, experience when looking for employment.”  In an interview at the Harvard Medical School blog, physician-dentist Lisa Simon makes an urgent case for considering oral health as a key component of overall healthcare – and ensuring that it is covered by Medicare.
  • “Variation in adolescent mortality between countries and by sex is widening, driven by poor progress in reducing deaths in males and older adolescents. Improving global adolescent mortality will require action to address the specific vulnerabilities of this age group, which are being overlooked….There is an urgent need to respond to the changing global burden of adolescent mortality, address inequities where they occur, and improve the availability and quality of primary mortality data in this age group.” A research article published collectively in Lancet by the Global Burden of Disease 2019 Adolescent Mortality Collaborators found that males accounted for a disproportionate amount of global deaths among those aged 10-24 years.


Black and white photograph of a woman working in a laboratory to prepare microscope slides.
Image via National Cancer Institute
  • “Compared with men, female scientists are more educated, half as likely to marry, one-third as likely to have children, but half as likely to survive in science. Employment records indicate that a generation of baby boom mothers was lost to science.” In a working paper published at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Scott Daewon and Petra Moser conduct a deep analysis of biographical data culled from patent applications and scientific publications that sheds light on the scientific careers of women from the Baby Boom generation.
  • “The news means that WhatsApp’s new limit is successfully slowing down the spread of viral messages, despite the fact that people still have the option of manually forwarding a message to multiple people or groups. However, it’s impossible to know how many of these messages contain the misinformation that WhatsApp is trying to halt, versus how many of them are helpful advice or harmless memes.” The Verge’s Jon Porter reports that messaging app WhatsApp, which has been struggling to reduce the amount and reach of misinformation shared on its platform has successfully throttled the virality of messages by limiting the ability to forward them – but the quality, as opposed to volume, of the content being throttled is unknown.
  • “…this study’s findings highlight that faculty often describe these distinct terms in overlapping ways. Additionally, results show that marked variance in definitions across faculty does not correspond to demographic characteristics. This study’s results highlight the subjectivity of common research terms and the importance of implementing evaluation regimes that do not rely on ill-defined concepts and may be context specific.” A research article by Morales and colleagues, published in PLOS ONE, investigates what we talk about when we talk about impact (or prestige, or quality) with regard to academic journals.


Uncooked spaghetti, photographed end-on and fanned out in a spiral
Image via Pixabay
  • “There’s a remarkable range of incentives and other methods devised to overcome Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. While some of these ideas have stuck like spaghetti thrown against a wall, it’s not clear which are most effective. Even when researchers have demonstrated the success of certain strategies, they haven’t been widely adopted.” A STAT News article by Theresa Gaffney that looks at the ad-hoc, patchwork approach nationwide to overcoming vaccine hesitancy during the COVID pandemic includes comments from Duke pediatrician Charlene Wong.
  • “We stand with the growing number of institutions both public and private who mandate vaccination with suitably-narrow exemptions for all employees, visitors, students, and other eligible persons.” The Association of Bioethics Program Directors has published a statement supporting the use of vaccine mandates as a public health measure against the spread of COVID (H/T @ArthurKaplan).
  • “…the deal calls for some members of the Sackler family — which controlled Purdue — to contribute more than $4.3 billion over nearly a decade to compensate individuals, state and local governments, and tribal communities for the cost of the opioid crisis. The deal was in response to some 3,000 lawsuits that prompted the company to seek bankruptcy in 2019. But even though the plan was approved, the money hasn’t started flowing and it remains unclear when that will happen.” At STAT News, Ed Silverman catches readers up on developments related to the distribution of settlement money from the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy deal.
  • “Across California, public health departments are losing experienced staffers to retirement, exhaustion, partisan politics and higher-paying jobs….the decline has accelerated over the past year and a half, even as millions of dollars in federal money has poured in. Public health nurses, microbiologists, epidemiologists, health officers and other staff members who fend off infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, inspect restaurants and work to keep communities healthy are abandoning the field. It’s a problem that temporary boosts in funding can’t fix.” An article at Kaiser Health News by Anna Maria Barry-Jester highlights the ongoing toll that COVID has taken on the field of public health, with attrition among lab workers reaching alarming rates.
  • “Lessons from the SYCT initiative might be used to plan for ways to distribute tests to communities, including understanding differences in preferences and interest by race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, and vaccination status…” An article published at Health Affairs Blog by Fleurence and colleagues describes an initiative to distribute free at-home rapid COVID tests in North Carolina and Tennessee.