Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Mobile Health

Ever heard about the use of Artificial Intelligence in mobile health in developing countries?

Well, if that sounds new to you; don’t worry, you are not alone. Last June, the United Nations Agency ITU (International Telecommunication Union) held a conference called ‘AI for GOOD Global Summit’, the first one in its kind,  to start discussing the use of Artificial Intelligence applied to developing context and to support the SDGs.

by Paola Fava


I remember over 10 years ago, while studying engineering, AI and robotics were quite new and fascinating subjects, but it was still a niche sector.The idea behind that is to build machines capable of thinking like humans, recognize information, picking up data from different sources, use that data to feed algorithms that can learn and improve their tasks. It sounds sci-fi, doesn’t it?

Well, since then, the AI potentials have been widely explored and applied in many sectors. Most likely, we have heard that Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, neural networks stand at the ground of driverless cars, of very smart computers that can beat chess champions or other applications of AI which are enabled by sensors connected to smartphone SIM cards.

However there’s much more to it. And more potentials may be out there ready to be explored also for developing countries, where the widespread of mobile phones and AI can go hand in hand.  I am quoting here Joel Selanikio ( Magpi CEO), who wrote in one of his blog: “we are beginning to realize that all the benefits (of mobile phones to global health) up to now have only been prelude to something with even greater impact on international health: the rise of artificial intelligence, delivered to even the poorest people in the world via the mobile phone.


Mobile_Healthcare_techeconomy_importanza del mobile per la salute


Again, quoting Selanikio, ‘some examples of AI-mobile phone applied to health care  include:

  • ResApp Health, who have used AI to develop an application that listens to the sound of coughing and breathing and can accurately then diagnose pneumonia or asthma.
  • IBM’s Watson, which can diagnose cancer, and select appropriate treatment, more accurately than expert cancer specialists.
  • AiCure, a mobile app that uses AI to verify medication compliance (it can watch you ingest your meds) – and which could be used to scale directly-observed therapy (DOT) for TB (currently dependent on community-health workers) at low cost to all the places that current cannot afford it.
  • NIH facial image recognition algorithms that can diagnose genetic disease using a smartphone camera.’


Does that still sound sci-fi? Well, it’s real and it’s the future.

However, as there are always two sides to every story, the same applies to AI in healthcare.
Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, in her opening remarks at the Artificial intelligence for good global summit, invites researchers and stakeholders to be cautious as medical decisions are complex and depends on context and values.

Although machines can aid the work of doctors, organize, rationalize, and streamline the processes leading to a diagnosis or other medical decision, artificial intelligence cannot replace doctors and nurses in their interactions with patients.
… we must consider the context and what it means for the lives of people. What good does it do to get an early diagnosis of skin or breast cancer if a country offers no opportunity for treatment, has no specialists or specialized facilities and equipment, or if the price of medicines is unaffordable for both patients and the health system?
What happens if a diagnosis by smartphone app misses a symptom that signals a severe underlying disease? Can you sue a machine for medical malpractice? How do you regulate a machine programmed to think like a human?

All of these questions are very important and we should not underestimate them.


Photo credits: the next web 

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