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£250m fund for NHS artificial intelligence laboratory slammed as tech for tech's sake

Just you wait, Matthew Hancock! Just you wait!

UK health secretary Matt Hancock has been accused of being "obsessed by technology" for its own sake following the UK government's vague announcement about injecting £250m into a AI laboratory for the NHS.

The fund is aimed at improving cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests – including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring – and also go towards predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices or surgeries.

But the government has not released further details of how the money is intended to be spent, with the funds not due to be released for another two years.

Dr Neil Bhatia, a Hampshire GP, told The Register: "This is a huge amount of money, and there are a lot more deserving things NHS needs. Also a lot depends on what information they will use, and how they will hold it. All the news around DeepMind and the Royal Free Trust doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence in governance and consent. Will they respect people's rights?

"At the moment, this sounds like just another sound bite. The health secretary Matt Hancock is obsessed by technology, but he can't see the wood for the trees. The NHS is desperate for doctors and nurses, social care is in crisis and the four-hour wait is reaching record levels of noncompliance."

Hancock, previously culture minister, received a drubbing after launching his own eponymous app, which asked for a host of unnecessary access permissions.

Sam Smith, from privacy advocates medConfidential, said: "There are no details. This is a shiny thing about AI which Hancock persuaded [special advisor to prime minister Boris Johnson] Dominic Cummings and Number 10 to announce far beyond their current planning horizon, and since it was AI, it got a prominent slot on the grid. There are no details yet – just a mountain of questions that no one is able to answer, as no one has done any of the thinking."

In a statement, Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: "Technology needs to be driven by patient need and not just for technology's sake.

"Robust evaluation therefore needs to be at the heart of any drive towards greater use of technology in the NHS, so that technologies that are shown to be effective can be spread further, and patients protected from any potential harm.

"The proposed AI lab is a welcome investment in NHS analytics, and there is scope for this to support analytics right across the health system, including with local analytics teams if a collaborative approach is adopted. However, given the questions raised about other funding announcements this week, we will need to ensure there's clarity on where this money will come from and whether there may need to be trade-offs."

He noted that the NHS faces real challenges that need to be addressed, including major workforce shortages and a crumbling infrastructure.

"Despite the extra capital funding pledged this week, there remains a £6bn maintenance backlog for supporting basic infrastructure, including IT equipment, of which over £3bn is identified as 'high or significant risk'. And with a shortfall of 100,000 staff, the NHS will struggle to sustain current services, let alone take advantage of the benefits of new technology." ®

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