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How Artificial Intelligence Will Make Healthcare More Human. A Conversation with Cris De Luca, Director, Digital Health New Ventures, Johnson & Johnson Innovation

Can technologies such as artificial intelligence, voice, and passive sensors make healthcare more human? Cris De Luca, Director, Digital Health New Ventures at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, thinks so. De Luca, who is based in Boston and is responsible for external healthcare technology innovation, sees a future where technologies fade into the background of our lives, seamlessly guiding us toward healthier choices and identifying early warning signals that could help us prevent, intercept or even cure diseases. Below is a condensed and edited version of his podcast interview with Caroline Baratz. To listen to the entire episode, please click here.

Caroline: As we think about the importance of health technology, what are big trends that you're seeing in your area that could significantly impact healthcare in say, the next five years?

Cris: There's sort of this manifestation of new technologies that have hit the market, especially in the healthcare space. And I'm really pumped about seeing all of the venture capital and the innovation being injected into AI. I think that's one of the most both hyped but also under hyped areas. Many people talk about how busy it is and how long it's been around and this is just new vocabulary. While that's all true, we're just in the dial-up phase of AI and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface. And I think the more that we can start to see the use cases, we start to see publications associated with narrow tasks where data has enabled good training of algorithms to be able to assist in clinical decision support.

And we're starting to see some of that outcome data already with promise. It shows that this is not just a trend. It's shows that this is really a new way for physicians to scale, for clinicians to have better insights into what behaviors their patients might be experiencing and early detect and support them. So I really see an opportunity where, or almost a world where AI becomes the new operating system. And if that's the new operating system with algorithms that are well trained and ideally with unbiased data with proper governance and ethics built into this, we really open a new door for almost passively monitoring human health.

If you could sort of look at the past five to seven years, there's been a wave of mobile health technologies and wearable technologies and they've been marginally successful at best. It's been mostly an app for this and an app for that. And you can look at the 500,000-plus apps that sit in the App Store. Most of them have been never downloaded. There's about 40 that make up for all downloads. So you can ask why has it evolved this way? And I think that was the first wave of health technology that really hit consumers and then also the healthcare system. But now we're seeing maturity in the market with this realization that you can't just release a point solution for each experience. You really must think of the human centric design aspect of this and really understanding, not just the individual level, but also at the ecosystem of issues that are going on at the disease level and what that might mean from an empathetic perspective.

And when you start to see some of these things come together, there's almost a new class of technology. Within an AI operating system, I am excited for passive technologies such as using radio signals to monitor mobility and gait and measurement, or to being able to look at voice technologies as a new way for humans to interface with machines. So really taking the friction out of the technology, a dystopian version of this would having wearables on multiple wrists and a helmet and electrodes hooked up to you to supposedly get you healthier. And I don't think that actually improves quality of life, and I don't think that's actually realistic in any scenario. That might help us get better data and better understanding of disease, but the most elegant implementation of this will actually show up perhaps in the most human possible way and that's where the technology is fully invisible.

Another track that we're working on, is in the space of vocal biomarker development. There are a couple of ways to think about voice. Anyone that knows me knows that I'm very bullish in general conversational interfaces and that means if mobile health was the first wave of technology and how we would think about organizing health information, I believe that voice technologies will help finding people where they are, as opposed to trying to pull people into this app or hitting them over the head with another badge notification.

Everyone knows how to use text messages. Everyone knows how to ask Alexa what the weather is today. When you start to think of what people are doing naturally in their everyday lives, you can start to think of how health might be a new experience in line with what they're already doing. And so this can be, whether it's around a consumer brand and or whether it's around a health experience from a clinical trial on being able to assess, "How did you sleep last night? How are you feeling?" And if voice is the right context for that, that's great. If it's more appropriate to do this through a text experience, maybe you're on the train commuting in, that's great too. But having these experiences be entirely connected, is something that I'm personally very interested in and enabling towards the future of health experiences.

But what's even deeper than that is actually the opportunity for vocal biomarker development. So it's not just the fact that you have a new modality in speaking to a connected speaker or even a mobile device for that matter, but it's the fact that understanding that being new health data and voice as a new vital sign, is actually really, really interesting because the data is easy to capture.     

I think really looking at these low friction or invisible technologies that really start to push technology towards the sort of behind the scenes and let people live their lives. But while that's happening, you start to think of what this new kind of check engine light system that might be working on the backend to inform your early and sort of alter that trajectory. I mean, we talked so much about a world without disease, and I think this is one of the killer ways to do that. You sort of think of how do you surround a human with all these technologies that they don't actually see, that doesn't interfere with their lives, but starts to sense and starts to inform and starts to sort of redirect and intercept when it's the right moment.

And this could be from a both preventative and behavioral perspective, all the way down to how we can early detect disease from, as I mentioned, AI system. So I think this future is bright, and we have a lot more work to do. But this is some of the examples of technologies that we're seeing already make a difference.