What’s Behind Microsoft’s New Public Health AI Play?

In a play for public health street cred, Microsoft has announced the creation of a new program designed to help public health researchers and organizations to leverage AI. The software giant plans to spend $40 million over five years in locations around the world for this effort, which is part of Microsoft’s $165 million AI for Good program. The new initiative is dubbed AI for Health.

There are a few ways to look at this announcement, and I’ll start with the most generous view. In taking this step, Microsoft is reaching out to help populations that are unlikely to see the benefits of the health AI explosion anytime soon. This is certainly commendable, and quite a public-spirited use of Microsoft resources, something one would hope to see more often from other Big Tech players.

Another, somewhat less flattering take on this announcement reads as follows. Perhaps Microsoft is hoping to demonstrate that AI isn’t some sort of sinister force that will eventually make unsympathetic, even horrifying medical decisions that harm human beings. “Look at all the people in Third World countries that we’ve helped with AI!” I can imagine PR execs telling the press. (Of course, some health insurance companies are already making heartless decisions about people’s care, but the public doesn’t always remember this.)

Yet a third way to analyze this announcement, easily the least flattering of all, is that Microsoft is launching this project largely to conduct advanced AI experiments outside of the US situations which are less likely to put them in direct competition with other US tech giants. I’m not suggesting that Microsoft plans to run bizarre tests on the people it serves, but rather that is easier to protect trade secrets in the middle of the Amazon rain forest than it is in a lab in the Valley. It may also be easier to find volunteers willing to participate in studies of Microsoft’s new AI inventions in regions where the need for healthcare solutions is so great.

Ultimately, my best guess here is that Microsoft’s latest AI initiative, while doubtless serving people and communities in need, probably encompasses some of the ulterior motives I outlined above as well. After all, $40 million is a small price to pay for the mix of live feedback on its innovations and discoveries it might make among non-US volunteers who need whatever help Microsoft can give them.

By the way, what makes this a really shrewd move is that the project will also benefit from the halo effect arising from the admirable work done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This isn’t unethical or wrong, but it makes the cynic in me chuckle.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.