March 07, 2019

Bioethicist lecture examines use of artificial intelligence in patient diagnosis, treatment

by Pete Rosenbery

alex-londonCARBONDALE, Ill. — The importance of ensuring public trust in using artificial intelligence for patient diagnosis and treatment is the focus of the 2019 John and Marsha Ryan Bioethicist in Residence lecture this month at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Noted medical ethicist Alex John London will present “Artificial Intelligence in Medicine: Does Accountability Require Explainability?”

The lecture is at 5 p.m., March 20, at the SIU School of Law in Carbondale. It will be simulcast to the SIU School of Medicine’s Dirksen Conference Room in the medical library in Springfield. The lecture is free, and the public is welcome.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to attend the Ryan Bioethicist in Residence lecture with Alex John London at 5 p.m., March 20, in the SIU School of Law courtroom. For more information or to arrange interviews, contact Michele Mekel, the law school’s director of external relations, at or 618/453-8768. For the March 22 lecture in Springfield, contact Kristie Parkins, SIU School of Medicine Medical Humanities, at or 217/545-4261.

London is the Clara L. West Professor of Ethics and Philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. For more than a decade, he has helped shape key ethical guidelines for the oversight of research with human participants, according to lecture organizers.

He is co-editor of “Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine,” one of the most widely used textbooks in medical ethics and has published more than 85 papers in leading philosophy and medical journals. London’s work on ethics and artificial intelligence “centers around the nature of ethical decision making in computational systems and mechanisms for ensuring social trust, accountability and non-domination.”

AI technology brings hopes, fears

Like other new technologies, use of artificial intelligence, or AI, brings great expectations and hype, while some view AI as replacing physicians and “a threat to the moral integrity of modern medicine,” London said.

He takes a more measured view in applying artificial intelligence to the medical field. London said he is optimistic but cautious, and notes that even successful medical interventions have their costs, risks and downsides.

Important to understand how AI works

A critical component for many regarding artificial intelligence’s safe and effective use is to understand how and why it works, he said. London will discuss how medicine is different from other sciences “in that our ability to do things, for example, cure a headache or treat anxiety, often comes before our ability to explain why what we do works.”

London said it is important to establish, through careful testing, that artificial intelligence works. He believes there are “valuable lessons about how to safely and effectively use artificial intelligence from the way we require proof of safety and efficacy in drugs.”

Advancements could mean ‘science fiction becomes science fact’

Michele Mekel, an adjunct professor in health law and bioethics at the law school, notes that artificial intelligence “is already an ingrained part of our daily lives in a multitude of ways.” If that current trajectory continues, Mekel said greater dependency promises to come in more sophisticated ways.

“And that is what calls for reflection now regarding the ethics, policy, and regulation that we, as a society, desire to institute in order to provide guideposts on the ‘dos’ and ‘do nots,’”  she said. “Such contemplation and governance decision making are especially critical with regard to AI’s use in the most personal of arenas – our healthcare.”

London will also present a lecture in Springfield

In addition to the public lecture, London will present lectures on the same general topic to the Southern Illinois Healthcare Bioethics Committee and students on March 21, and to faculty, students and medical providers at the SIU School of Medicine in Springfield on March 22. In Springfield, London will present “Ethical and Scientific Issues Developing AI in Medicine: Parallels to Drugs Development” at 8 a.m. in the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation 2B Theatre.

Lecture series captures public imagination

This is the law school’s 14th bioethicist-in-residence lecture, and the 12th since John C. and Dr. Marsha G. Ryan endowed the visiting lecture series.

Founded in 2006, the John and Marsha Ryan Bioethicist-in-Residence program supports an annual residence and lecture by a law or medicine ethics scholar for the SIU schools of law and medicine.

Connecting medicine, technology for patient diagnosis and treatment

Technology is expanding so quickly and widely that it was a matter of time before seeing how it could be applied within the medical care field. The lecture can help bring attention to those possibilities and pitfalls, and help focus on what that discussion should look like, Marsha Ryan said.

“It may mean greater access to care. It may mean better monitoring of patient well-being and compliance,” she said. “It will certainly mean we need to be more vigilant, harvesting what is good and avoiding what is bad in terms of validity of the data, encroachment on patient autonomy and privacy.”

Marsha Ryan earned her law degree from the SIU School of Law in 1987 and was an adjunct faculty member there for 30 years until 2017. She practiced general and breast surgery in Carbondale for 36 years until her retirement in 2017. John Ryan, a member of the law school’s inaugural class, is a longstanding attorney at Feirich, Green, Mager, Ryan in Carbondale.