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How AI can help cure disease and save millions from dying before their time

Dr Vanessa Smer-Barreto, a leading researcher specialising in cancer research and diseases of ageing at Edinburgh University’s Institute of Genetics and Cancer, explains why AI technologies must be allowed to evolve faster, because a too-cautious approach will delay our efforts to find a cure for cancer and many high-mortality diseases
Dr Vanessa Smer-Barreto
Dr Vanessa Smer-Barreto

Dr Vanessa Smer-Barreto is a researcher developing AI technologies for drug discovery. Following her PhD in Astronomy and two years working as a data analyst she switched to biomedicine after winning a cross-disciplinary post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. Her most recent breakthrough was the discovery of three ageing-related agents using machine learning, which led to widespread national and international media coverage. Follow her on X.

To cure disease AI must move faster

Since ChatGPT burst into public consciousness last year, the emergence of everyday artificial intelligence tools, such as the large language models that can answer your questions, write essays and plan marketing strategies better than most humans, have captivated our collective imagination while also causing widespread alarm and concern.

Many respected and influential experts, including science communicator and Unfiltered contributor Liv Boeree, have urged immediate caution, warning that an unregulated Silicon Valley AI arms race poses an existential risk to humanity.

Yet some experts are not concerned by the speed at which AI is progressing, but by just how slow progress is.

One such expert is Dr Vanessa Smer-Barreto, a leading researcher specialising in cancer research and diseases of ageing at Edinburgh University’s Institute of Genetics and Cancer, who has recently had a major breakthrough in the application of AI to biomedicine which has incredible implications for the future of medicine.

Her frustration stems from the potential medical breakthroughs that are being held back by limitations in the current state of AI technology. Within biomedicine generally – and cancer research specifically – improved problem solving abilities in AI could lead to significantly better and faster treatments, potentially saving the lives of millions of people each year.

In our exclusive in-depth conversation Dr Smer-Barreto explains how machine learning can be used to rapidly accelerate the painfully slow and expensive process of drug discovery, and therefore reduce the time from bench to bedside.

She also sheds light on the urgent need for more high quality data to allow AI models to provide potential advancements, and the benefits of inter- and cross-disciplinary collaboration in providing novel solutions to complex problems.

With the current climate of fear surrounding the development of AI, it’s vital to remember that in the right hands and used for the right purposes, some applications of AI can be an amazing force for good. In the debate over AI – with many prominent calls for a halt in development – we should remember what we might gain from developments, and not just what we might lose.

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