John Fox is an interdisciplinary scientist with theoretical interests in AI and computer science, and an applied focus in medicine and medical software engineering. After training in experimental psychology at Durham and Cambridge Universities and post-doctoral fellowships at CMU and Cornell in the USA and UK (MRC) he joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK) in 1981 as a researcher in medical AI. The group’s research was explicitly multidisciplinary and it subsequently made significant contributions in basic computer science, AI and medical informatics, and developed a number of successful technologies which have been commercialised.
In 1996 he and his team were awarded the 20th Anniversary Gold Medal of the European Federation of Medical Informatics for the development of PROforma, arguably the first formal computer language for modeling clinical decision and processes. Fox has published widely in computer science, cognitive science and biomedical engineering, and was the founding editor of the Knowledge Engineering Review (Cambridge University Press). Recent publications include a research monograph Safe and Sound: Artificial Intelligence in Hazardous Applications (MIT Press, 2000) which deals with the use of AI in safety-critical fields such as medicine.
Luke Muehlhauser: You’ve spent many years studying AI safety issues, in particular in medical contexts, e.g. in your 2000 book with Subrata Das, Safe and Sound: Artificial Intelligence in Hazardous Applications. What kinds of AI safety challenges have you focused on in the past decade or so?
John Fox: From my first research job, as a post-doc with AI founders Allen Newell and Herb Simon at CMU, I have been interested in computational theories of high level cognition. As a cognitive scientist I have been interested in theories that subsume a range of cognitive functions, from perception and reasoning to the uses of knowledge in autonomous decision-making. After I came back to the UK in 1975 I began to combine my theoretical interests with the practical goals of designing and deploying AI systems in medicine.
Since our book was published in 2000 I have been committed to testing the ideas in it by designing and deploying many kind of clinical systems, and demonstrating that AI techniques can significantly improve quality and safety of clinical decision-making and process management. Patient safety is fundamental to clinical practice so, alongside the goals of building systems that can improve on human performance, safety and ethics have always been near the top of my research agenda.
Luke Muehlhauser: Was it straightforward to address issues like safety and ethics in practice?
John Fox: While our concepts and technologies have proved to be clinically successful we have not achieved everything we hoped for. Our attempts to ensure, for example, that practical and commercial deployments of AI technologies should explicitly honor ethical principles and carry out active safety management have not yet achieved the traction that we need to achieve. I regard this as a serious cause for concern, and unfinished business in both scientific and engineering terms.
The next generation of large-scale knowledge based systems and software agents that we are now working on will be more intelligent and will have far more autonomous capabilities than current systems. The challenges for human safety and ethical use of AI that this implies are beginning to mirror those raised by the singularity hypothesis. We have much to learn from singularity researchers, and perhaps our experience in deploying autonomous agents in human healthcare will offer opportunities to ground some of the singularity debates as well.