AI and the Everyday Political Economy of Global Health
Of all the societal effects from Covid-19, least understood but likely to be most long-lasting is the rapid proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) based technologies in global healthcare. AI has been portrayed as the ‘solution’ for containing the spread of the pandemic and saving human lives. Despite concerns over privacy and surveillance, the current state-of-exception has created a new terrain for what is politically acceptable in which the global political economy of private health data combined with AI and autonomous systems has significant implications for the individual person and society.
Transnational ownership of private health data
In many countries, not only has the state acquired access to new troves of data, but private health data has been passed over to transnational corporations on the grounds that their algorithms designed to steer consumption habits, logistics networks, or voter behaviour, may be adapted to create precision solutions for controlling and suppressing the spread of the pandemic. In response, civil society groups have demanded transparency to know the terms of the agreement by which, for example, the medical data of the UK population has been handed over to large technology multinationals, some with alleged links to vested interests.
The political-economy of private health data
The question of who controls the data and for what ends has significance for not just healthcare but also the distribution of power within and between societies. Human health is often seen as statecentric, healthcare governed by national regulations – including whether access requires private health insurance – and treated as indicative of a state’s development. The prominence of AI in healthcare challenges that statecentrism, because of gross inequalities in the global political-economy of the digital industry. In stark contrast to much of the rest of the economy that has faltered during Covid-19, the digital industry has seen a period of unprecedented growth that has only strengthened those inequalities and left regions, including the European nations, in the position of being service users rather than controllers and providers of that industry. Where unable to rely on domestic actors to offer similar services, political leaders are left to decide whether to ignore the promises of AI or embrace them and hand sovereignty of the most sensitive population data to private interests beyond their oversight.
The importance of AI in healthcare contrasted with a geographically imbalanced digital industry creates a challenging regulatory environment at the global level, in which health data and the application of AI crosses borders, but the capacity to regulate is still confined to the nation. Healthcare is not easily regulated at the global level; the human body and the cultural norms through which we live are much more often thought of in national terms. To develop global institutional mechanisms by which AI can be used to achieve optimal outcomes for human health means we need to somehow straddle the gap between the everyday realm of the individual and the increasingly global reality of contemporary healthcare.
Start: 1 September 2021
End: 31 August 2026
Assistant Professor Project
Medical and Health Sciences
Universities and institutes