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The pandemic fast-tracked technological deployment in public health and medicine. Everything from contact-tracing apps to services offering remote doctor appointments. But nowhere has the role of technology — specifically artificial intelligence — been more hotly debated than in the field of drug discovery.
Advocates point to the pandemic as proof of its value in healthcare even as critics dismiss its use in drug discovery as “hype”, reports Hannah Kuchler.
In January 2020, scientists at the pharmaceutical company BenevolentAI used artificial intelligence algorithms to trawl through 50mn medical journals to search for approved drugs that could be repurposed to treat the disease.
The scientists and the algorithm narrowed down the search to baricitinib, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis — all in a matter of four days. The Eli Lilly drug tackled both the virus and the body’s inflammatory reaction. The event marked the first time AI had discovered a drug, already in widespread use, that could be redeployed.
TechFT sat down with Lee Kai-Fu, an investor and author of AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Futureto talk about the technology’s role in drug discovery.
IT’S THE: What role does AI have in drug discovery?
LKF: AI can help speed up drug discovery in three phases of drug development. The first phase uses AI to narrow down the number of drug candidates. Instead of a scientist filtering a drug from 10,000 candidates down, the AI will do that based on inputs fed in by the scientist. This process combines AI with human expertise to pick the candidates with the highest likelihood of success in clinical trials.
The second phase uses AI during the experimentation phase, where robots can automate much of the lab work. Robots replicate simple and routine manual procedures such as opening test tubes, mixing liquids, putting in chemical agents, growing the culture, watching the reaction and producing the result. These are routine and replicable procedures for robots, thereby accelerating the second phase of clinical drug development.
The third phase is to use AI to accelerate processes in the clinical trial stage, for example, helping pharmaceutical companies to match patients with the clinical trial. The benefit of these three combinations is to bring down the cost of drug discovery, lowering the bar for pharmaceutical companies to develop cures for rare diseases that were not economical to target.
IT’S THE: There is a fair amount of scepticism in the medical establishment about the role of AI in medicine. What will convince them of the future you are charting out?
LKF: I’m very aware of a cognisant mismatch between the medical and AI community. There are many AI people with starry-eyed dreams that they could change the world if only their software was adopted everywhere — who think it’s not happening just because of a different way of thinking [in the medical profession]. But that problem will not happen in drug discovery because the interests are aligned. We’re not proposing a new method of drug discovery. In each of these three phases, everything will be done to the precision and satisfaction of humans, within a framework that already exists.
IT’S THE: What are the risks of deploying AI in drug discovery?
LKF: There is a chance the same tools used to discover drugs that cure disease could be used to invent toxins to hurt people accurately. One possible mitigation is not making this open-source to stop it from falling into the wrong hands.
Dig deeper into this topic with Hannah Kuchler’s Big Read on AI’s goals of turbocharging the hunt for new drugs, which some critics dismiss as a pipe dream. Anjana Ahuja’s article warning about the dangers of AI that could be used to develop biological weapons provides a useful cautionary note to pharma and AI companies.
The Internet of (Four) Things
1. South Korean fintech challenger targets south-east Asia
Viva Republica, one of South Korea’s most valuable fintech start-ups, is seeking to raise up to $1bn from international investors. Toss offers money transfer and debit card services in South Korea and Vietnam. It is now pushing into new south-east Asian markets, where it will go head to head with Singapore’s Grab and Indonesia’s GoTo, which analysts say have the incumbent advantage, having built a robust fintech ecosystem on the back of strong ride-hailing data.
2. Amazon faces crucial unionisation vote
Employees of an Amazon Alabama warehouse have been voting on whether they want to unionise, a step that could mark the company’s first unionisation in the country. Amazon, the second-biggest employer in the US, after Walmart, has an unbeaten record in squashing unionisation efforts in the US. Dave Lee reports that a “yes” vote would spell trouble for Amazon, coming just as it is being squeezed by rising labour costs and supply chain shortages. Ballots are due to be counted next week.
3. Big Tech’s expanding land grab
Lex dug into the annual reports of major tech companies to chart the large real estate investments made after accumulating large cash piles. In the last set of annual reports, Amazon listed its global properties as close to 35mn sq ft, plus another 570mn sq ft in leased space. It values its land and buildings at $81bn, up from $32bn at the end of 2018. Meta tots up its land and building value at $24bn in 2021, from $8bn in 2018.
4. EU set to unveil landmark law on tech giants
The EU is poised to unveil a law designed to rein in the market power of Big Tech as early as Thursday. The Digital Markets Act will impact internet companies with at least 45,000 active users and introduce new controls such as tighter restrictions on the way companies handle personal data.
Dyson’s new and improved Airwrap multi-styler hair tool will hit UK store shelves next month — an upgrade from the original sellout 2018 model. The Airwrap can dry, curl, straighten and shape hair — without the same heavy heat damage caused by traditional curling irons or hair straighteners. The Airwrap uses airstreams to shape hair strands, and the new model has attachments that make it quicker and easier to beautify one’s barnet. The complete Dyson Airwrap kit will set you back £479.99.
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