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WHO highlights benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence for older people

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An elderly person uses a smartphone.

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can improve older people’s health and well-being, but only if ageism is eliminated from their design, implementation, and use, said the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday.

In a new policy brief, Ageism in artificial intelligence for health, the agency presents legal, non-legal and technical measures that can be used to minimize the risk of exacerbating or introducing ageism through AI.

Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing many fields, including public health and medicine for older people. The technology can help predict health risks and events, enable drug development, support the personalization of care management, and much more.


WHO highlights benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence for older people

Engineers work with medical robotic equipment., by © Unsplash

There are concerns, however. If left unchecked, AI technologies may perpetuate existing ageism in society and undermine the quality of health and social care that older people receive.

The data used can be unrepresentative of older people or skewed by past ageist stereotypes, prejudice or discrimination.

Flawed assumptions of how older people wish to live or interact with technology in their daily lives can also limit the design and reach of these technologies. They can also reduce intergenerational contact or deepen existing barriers to digital access.

According to the Unit Head of Demographics and Healthy Ageing at WHO, Alana Officer, the implicit and explicit biases of society, including around age, are often replicated in this field. 

“To ensure that AI technologies play a beneficial role, ageism must be identified and eliminated from their design, development, use and evaluation. This new policy brief shows how”, she said. 

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In the new document, WHO introduces eight considerations, including participatory design of AI technologies by and with older people; age-diverse data science teams, and age-inclusive data collection.

The agency also makes the case for investments in digital infrastructure and digital literacy for older people and their healthcare providers and caregivers; rights of older people to consent and contest; and governance frameworks and regulations to empower and work with older people. 

Finally, WHO asks for increased research to understand new uses of AI and how to avoid bias; and robust ethics processes in the development and application of these technologies. 

Fight ageism

The policy brief aligns with the messages of the Global report on ageismwhich serves as the basis for the Global Campaign to Combat Ageism.

Produced by WHO in collaboration with the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the reportnotes that ageism is highly prevalent and harmful but can be eliminated.

The publication describes the far-reaching impacts that ageism has on all aspects of health and well-being and on economies. It also signals a clear need to invest in three proven strategies: drafting better policies and legal frameworks, educational activities, and intergenerational interventions.

Finally, it highlights the need to improve data and research on ageism and change the narrative around age to make the hashtag, #AWorld4AllAges, a reality.

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