Fighting Developing World Disease With AI, Robotics, and Biotech

While CRISPR, nanobots and head transplants are making headlines as medical breakthroughs, a number of new technologies are also making progress tackling some of the toughest age-old diseases still plaguing millions of people in the poorest parts of the world.

In low income countries, over 75% of the population dies before the age of 70 due to infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS, lung infections, tuberculosis, diarrheal diseases, malaria, and increasingly, cardiovascular diseases. Over a third of deaths in low income countries are among children under age 14 primarily due to pneumonia, diarrheal diseases, malaria and neonatal complications. In the developed world, those living in extreme poverty, such as homeless populations, also die on average at age 48.

Over the last year, artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnology have all generated a number of new solutions that have the potential to dramatically reduce these problems.

global-health-ggc-4Artificial Intelligence

Several new institutions and companies are developing artificial intelligence to successfully predict and halt the spread of infectious diseases.

In May of 2015, the Cary Institute of Ecosystems reported they’d successfully used machine learning to predict the spread of disease by rodents with 90% accuracy. This may prove to be a potent disease-fighting tool because rodents transmit over 60 diseases, and in general, animals transmit the majority of infectious diseases impacting over one billion people every year.

Meanwhile, a team of scientists at Chinese Normal University have been using neural networks to analyze weather data to predict outbreaks of diarrheal diseases in Shanghai, and a new startup AIME is using artificial intelligence to predict dengue outbreaks in South America and Asia.

Digital communication is also yielding a wealth of data for researchers. Using software to look at behaviors over large populations, they’re able to better target preventative measures.

In the US and Canada, for example, scientists using artificial intelligence to analyze the social networks of homeless First Nation youth believe they can reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS up to 60% by identifying and training influential youth in preventative behavior. UNICEF is using artificial intelligence to analyze and respond to tens of thousands of text messages about HIV/AIDS from teenagers in Zambia and Uganda, and IBM Watson has developed an artificial intelligence pregnancy app that responds to nutrition questions from mothers.

Additionally, Autoscope recently tested a new microscope that employs artificial intelligence on the Thailand-Myanmar border to more accurately identify malaria parasites, and scientists in England are using artificial intelligence to analyze drug resistance to tuberculosis.

Together, these developments can increase the speed and reliability of diagnosing and treating these diseases while also providing more information about the characteristics of the disease and, over the long-term, reduce costs.


Robots and new machines are also helping prevent and cure diseases in the developing world.

A machine called Eve uses artificial intelligence and two robotic arms to manipulate lab equipment and speed up the process for discovering new drugs that tackle drug resistant malaria and other diseases. While still expensive, but with important implications for halting the spread of infectious disease such as Ebola in the developing world, hospitals in the US are now using $100,000 robots to blast hospital rooms with ultraviolet light, destroying infectious bugs, including drug resistant staph bacteria.

According to the World Health Organization, over 75% of the world does not have access to radiography. One solution? Using ultrasound instead of X-rays for some medical imaging. Mount Sinai Health Systems demonstrated that portable lower cost lung ultrasound machines can be as effective at diagnosing pneumonia in children as traditional chest X-ray machines.

Also in the name of improved access, drones have begun delivering medicine and lab tests in remote areas in the developing world and rural communities in the developed world.

Biotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Nanotechnology

Researchers and scientists are also using biotechnology, synthetic biology and nanotechnology to better understand and fight diseases that harm some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In April of 2016, the National Institute of Health sequenced the genome of pneumocystis—the organism causing life-threatening pneumonia in immunosuppresed patients. Genomic mapping can speed development of new drugs and treatments, especially helping HIV/AIDS patients.

In 2014, Paris based Sanofi created the first malaria drugs using synthetic biology (although the company has been stalling due to increased production of the drug by competitors through traditional means). Codagenix is currently working on a diarrheal vaccine using synthetic biology that could help 200 million people annually. And scientists in Texas are combining biotechnology with nanotechnology to create new types of drugs for pregnant women that do not cross the placenta and affect the fetus.

Impactful Startups Are Spreading Too

While many new technologies are coming from large organizations in the developed world, there is also a new generation of health startups and companies pioneered in the developing world.

For example, the LV Prassad Institute in India has been using regenerative medicine to treat over 700 patients for eye disorders since 2000, and Navigene allows parents to test their children for diseases through a urine test. India and Africa also both have a number of new digital health starts ups including Access MobilmPedigreeCardioPad.

Given the health challenges currently faced by billions of people in the developing world, it is promising to see some of the world’s most cutting edge technologies helping the people who need it most.

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Darlene Damm
Darlene Damm
Darlene Damm is faculty chair and head of social impact at Singularity University. She has spent nearly two decades working on moonshots and initiatives designed to solve our world’s toughest social problems and empower people to create abundant futures. At Singularity University, Darlene focuses on helping people understand how exponential technologies are creating abundance in the global grand challenge areas, as well as articulating and preparing for new social challenges created by exponential technologies including technological unemployment, inequality, and ethical issues. Darlene has a broad background spanning across both technology and social change. In 2012, she founded DIYROCKETS, the first company to crowdsource space technology, and in 2011 was an early cofounder of Matternet, one of the world’s first companies using drones for commercial transport and delivery of medical goods in the developing world. Darlene served with Ashoka, the world’s largest association of social entrepreneurs for nearly ten years where she built the organization’s fundraising system (raising over $30 million per year) and led Ashoka’s presence in the Silicon Valley launching major partnerships with companies such as Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook. In addition, she helped launch Ashoka’s StartEmpathy initiative which has scaled to over 30 countries ensuring young children grow up learning empathy and changemaking as core skills for the 21st century. Prior to that, Darlene spent over a decade working in Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, East Asia, and the US on educational and economic programs that empowered youth and helped bring developing nations into the global economy. She received her bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University and her master’s degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins SAIS. She was a Fellow with Japan-US Community Education and Exchange and a graduate of Singularity University. She holds a patent and regularly speaks around the world and publishes on the topic of technology, innovation, and social change.
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