Global health ethics

Big data and artificial intelligence

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Digital technologies and their applications to public health are expanding quickly. WHO’s Member States are increasingly adopting digital technologies in the health sector, exploring the use of data for decision-making and considering new solutions to strengthen their health systems. “Big data”, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) promise great benefit to the practice of medicine and to the health of populations. At the same time, escalating use of Big data and AI, i.e., the collection, storage, analysis, use and sharing of large data sets, poses many ethical challenges regarding governance, quality, safety, standards, privacy and data ownership and control.

WHO’s work

As the coordinating authority on public health within the United Nations system, WHO has a unique opportunity to provide guidance, build capacity, shape the research agenda and engage stakeholders in improving the ethical foundation for use of Big data and AI in public health. Developing global ethical guidance for Member States also requires an analysis of knowledge gaps and setting priorities for research to address those gaps.

WHO’s 13th Global Programme of Work (2019-2023) assigns particular importance to analysing and addressing ethical issues in relation to new and emerging scientific disciplines, including Big data and AI: " …WHO must be at the forefront of such new scientific fields and the ethical challenges they pose…. WHO is uniquely positioned to understand and tackle proactively the ethical, regulatory, professional and economic implications and to provide independent guidance with universal legitimacy to ensure that [Universal Health Coverage] is enhanced and not undermined by new scientific frontiers."

In 2017, WHO and its Collaborating Centre at the University of Miami (led by Ken Goodman) organized an international consultation on the subject (see link to report under WHO publication). A special symposium was held at the World Congress of Bioethics Conference in Bangalore in December 2018. A theme issue of the WHO Bulletin will be devoted to Big data, machine learning and AI. A project to develop guidance for Member States is underway.

Links to important documents/initiatives