Good morning. I am honoured to open this symposium today and to be amongst so many brilliant minds in the world of drug discovery and development.
Someone like me, who has spent over 30 years building leading-edge technology companies might seem an unlikely emissary to a gathering like this of esteemed scientists. But whilst we may come from different backgrounds, today our worlds are in fact colliding. Our industries are coming together in shared goals and purpose and our partnership has the potential to secure better outcomes for patients everywhere.
Mene Pangalos asked me to join you and to talk about my career journey, about AI and emerging technologies and our work at BenevolentAI. I was humbled to be invited and I hope I will deliver on the faith placed in me.
There is so much talk about artificial intelligence and how it will transform industries and our lives and that can be unsettling. We often hear about the potential ominous consequences of developments such as autonomous weapons or the dangers of algorithmic bias and we are fearful of what change may mean to us. But it’s been my experience that when the best of technological innovation combines with human ingenuity, we have no need to be fearful but we must be cautious and mindful of the potential consequences.
We have all experienced massive technological changes in our lifetimes but its increasingly more likely that this next wave of the human experience, augmented by machine intelligence, will completely change how we live, how we experience the world around us and, in fact, what it means to be human in the next millennia.
In Yuval Harari’s bestseller Homo Deus, he talks about a post-human world where technology enhances human capabilities beyond natural limits to create a new form of “human.” Well until recently, that sounded like science fiction, but today we already have wearable devices, autonomous vehicles, virtual and augmented reality, biomedical implants, robots, and someday soon as neural networks evolve, perhaps, a brain-computer interface.
Machines are already making many choices for us and about us, and yes, in many ways these developments are working out just fine — who doesn’t want an early warning before you suffer a heart attack? Or an augmented reality experience that helps you deal with PTSD? Or a robotic limb if you have been injured in a car accident? Things that would have been considered impossible just a decade ago are now becoming the new normal. But we must proceed with caution rooted in the acknowledgement that progress can only be achieved when the best technology is matched with the best in human thinking. History tells us that this fusion of capabilities is always the best path to progress.
In the tech industry, we often talk about moonshot moments — those big audacious projects that test the limits of our thinking and capabilities but that leads to true technological breakthrough.
Earlier this summer we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. That iconic moment when humanity dared to dream and the impossible became possible.
I was just 7 years old when the first man walked on the moon. My family lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania and my Dad worked for weeks to perfect the signal from an aerial he had constructed on the roof of our house. The reception was mostly static with an occasional image coming into view on a second-hand black and white TV, but it didn’t diminish the experience. When Dad rushed home from his factory job and we all gathered around in wonder for hours as mankind took a giant leap forward.
That moment – the moment when human ingenuity and ambition collided with scientific mastery – is ingrained in my mind. Everything it represented – the triumph of the human spirit, the fusion of technology and human intelligence, the collaboration between scientists and engineers have been central to my life ever since.
And it taught us that, when we bring our expertise together in the service of humankind, there should be no limit to what we can achieve. And that brings me to the purpose of today’s proceedings.
Today we face another ‘moonshot moment’: the opportunity to tackle challenging diseases that currently have no cure and to discover treatments for an ever-growing and ageing population that will live on average well into their 90s but will spend many of those later years unwell and in need of constant care. This is both an urgent human need but also an urgent priority for governments and society as the cost of care rises disproportionately to GDP.
The opportunity to tackle this challenge and to fuse our technology and expertise to dramatically transform outcomes for patients is now within our reach. To come together behind a shared purpose of helping more people all over the world live longer, healthier lives.
There can surely be no greater ambition than this.
But to meet this moment of possibility, we must once again embark on the collaboration of human and machine, of science and technology.
This belief has been the golden thread that has run through my life and has brought me to this very moment: a belief in the capacity of technology to work not against, but with humanity to transform our world for the better.
For me, this journey started in 1986 as a grad student. I wrote a business plan for a start-up that developed a turn-key solution for photojournalists to scan, capture and transmit photos over phone lines for digital printing in newspapers and magazines. Back then, before the internet existed as we know it today and when computers were the size of suitcases, this was revolutionary. And I remember the first time I saw photos from the front lines of the civil war in Lebanon rolling off a digital press on the front page of USA Today. At that moment I witnessed not just the impact of technology but how it revealed the truth of what was really going on in a dreadful conflict halfway around the world. I saw then the capacity for that combination between human ambition and emerging technologies to change the world for the better – I saw it with my own eyes and I knew it was a revolution I had to be part of.
That’s what took me to Silicon Valley in the late 1980s. Initially, I worked on the development of ASICs, or custom chipsets that would transform analogue machines into digital systems and then giving the internet voice and video by developing compression-decompression algorithms that enabled us to watch, listen and share digital media in real-time.
Next, when the dot com crash happened, I joined some former colleagues to build a startup that adapted military-grade encryption software and hardware to keep the most sensitive data secure. And finally, the last chapter was all about scaling global internet platforms and technologies that connected the world and gave us access to all of the world’s information.
At companies like Google, Aol and Facebook, I worked with some brilliant people and we built some amazing products. I had the opportunity to create new platforms and launch new businesses. I became a disruptor in an age of disruption; at the forefront of the digital revolution that has reshaped economies and societies around the world.
But at some point on that journey, my peers and I took a wrong turn. With our sights set on the horizon of a brighter future, we took our eyes off the lived experience of the here and now. We didn’t see the dangers: how the internet would upend things that matter like facts, truth, equality and respect for one another. We didn’t build the systems and processes to safeguard these vital principles in a new, digital, algorithmically optimised world. We didn’t recognise that the technologies we were building would not only be employed in the service of good, they could also be used for nefarious purposes.
I started to see that we were losing our way. Then came the fateful meeting that took my career down a new path. It was late 2012 and I was ushered into a meeting with UK prime minister David Cameron. He was troubled. He had met with the grieving parents of April Jones, a little girl from South Wales who had been abducted and murdered after her killer discovered and became addicted to child sexual abuse material online. She was just five years old.
As a mother, it was an anguishing wake-up call. As a leader in the industry, I felt sick that we weren’t doing a better job of policing our systems and ensuring that no one could subvert them to harm. Something had to change, and I knew that I could be part of that change.
So my life took an abrupt turn and I started a new career in government, initially as the Digital Advisor to the Prime Minister working on building the digital economy and taking on responsibility for combating all internet harms and crimes, especially those involving children. Two years later I had the honour of becoming the first American-born woman to serve as a life peer in the UK House of Lords, and in 2015 became the first Minister for Internet Safety & Security — a position of privilege but also of enormous responsibility.
I could now lead this emerging policy area and make an impact on a global basis.
And that’s what I sought to do: working to develop policy for greater scrutiny and regulation of tech companies. Working with the security services and cyber experts at GCHQ to build tools to tackle issues like extremism and child sexual exploitation, helping them fight back against the vile criminals who would use the internet for harm. And acting globally to establish organisations such as the WePROTECT Global Alliance – a coalition of 88 governments, law enforcement agencies, tech companies and NGOs dedicated to stopping the crime of child sexual abuse and exploitation online. That mission continues — and we will not rest until every child can use the internet safely without fear, harm or exploitation.
And it was this work, born out of tragedy, that reminded me that technology can be a force for good, but only if we remember the importance of the human element.
What I came to realise is that technology alone is the answer to nothing. It is only when we align technological innovation with human experience that we realise its true potential to change things for good.
Applied in the right way, technology can advance and improve lives and meet some of our world’s greatest challenges, from health to clean energy, climate change, food security, and poverty. I often ask my Silicon Valley friends: Shouldn’t we focus on those problems first? Shouldn’t we motivate our best and brightest to do just that? And shouldn’t we ensure that the application of AI will be an expression of the very highest ethical standards known to humankind?
That, I think, is where my world meets with yours.
I am sure that we are all committed to improvement and progress. We were not born to stand still — content simply to make it through. And by the nature of the choices we have made and the work that we do, we must all surely be idealists. But we are not dreamers. We have it within our capabilities to turn our ideas into reality. It is our destiny and our responsibility to do better than the generations that came before us.
And now as I have reached this advanced stage of my career, that is what I remain determined to do. To work on a mission that truly matters.
BenevolentAI is the most remarkable company I have ever had the privilege to be part of. We may be known as a tech company, but we have over 200 biologists, chemists, engineers, informaticians and data scientists between Cambridge, London and NYC all working united in a common purpose: to develop technology in the service of science to ensure that no disease in our world goes untreated.
And that is what I know all of you are focused on doing too. The work you do every day is changing the outcomes for patients all over the world. So already, your chosen path has enabled you to make an impact on humanity that is far greater than any other profession.
But now, increasingly, we have the potential to go even further; joining forces to once more fuse human ingenuity and technological progress. To combine your scientific expertise with emerging technologies in a bold new way that will deliver a whole new scale of innovation and success.
Because unlike other industries that were disrupted or disintermediated by technology and new incumbents, drug discovery and development has the opportunity to use technology to augment, not replace, human capabilities.
In the words of former chess world champion Gary Kasparov, who incidentally became the first world champion to lose a match to a computer,
“AI will force us to be more human. Automation will make us focus on the traits that humanity can do better than artificial intelligence, like creativity and imagination.”
Arguably, nowhere is this school of thought as applicable as in drug discovery. The increased use of AI and machine learning is not just about automating processes or scaling at pace. No machine, however smart, will ever be able to replicate the expertise of the scientists in this room. But machines can help to unlock novel insights. They can help us understand the vast corpus of knowledge, research and insight into human biology and to optimise across a near-infinite number of variables, combinations and permutations.
In this way, technology is not our master but our servant.
That is why, at BenevolentAI, we build our tools in the service of science, with the goal of providing scientists with supercharged capabilities to discover, develop and test new medicines.
BenevolentAI is not going to disrupt the world of drug discovery. We build technology to strengthen and support it. We’re here to bring the best experts together, creating and fostering the conditions for collaboration, and then allowing that collaboration to flourish and to develop medicines faster and with greater efficacy and precision.
Everyone in this room will know someone whose life has been turned upside down by a devastating diagnosis. And many of us have lived through the terrible experience of watching someone we love suffering from a disease that has no cure. There is truly nothing worse than being powerless to do anything about it. I am sure that is what has driven most of you in this room to this noble profession.
I believe it is our collective responsibility and shared ambition to bring together our two worlds and to work together to shorten the process of drug discovery and ensure treatments are more effective, so that more people go on to lead longer, happier, healthier lives.
Of course, no one business can do that on its own. And, frankly, nor should we try. That’s why a core principle of our operating model is to bring our technology platform to world-leading scientists and experts like all of you.
The past few decades have seen an explosion of biomedical data. The sheer wealth of information has made it impossible for even the most experienced researchers to process and comprehend. The current way we harvest this data is time-consuming, expensive – and it holds the industry back.
And for an evidence-based industry, we don’t actually use a lot of this data – not because we don’t want to, but because it’s really difficult to extract valuable insights. There is so much information out there that just isn’t being utilised in research and development. It’s a massive human limitation, but a perfect machine learning opportunity.
So our mission as a business is to use AI to unlock the potential of this vast sea of data, turning it from information that eludes or overwhelms us into knowledge that can inspire us and support scientific decision making.
BenevolentAI was founded with an ambitious goal to give scientists access to all of the available information and intelligence by creating the world’s largest biomedical knowledge base. Five years on, the Benevolent Knowledge Graph contains over a billion contextualised, machine-curated relationships, more than a third of which are proprietary. Together, these biological facts represent all that we know to be true about a disease.
We use the power of artificial intelligence to unlock new areas of knowledge and to employ that knowledge to remake the way medicines are discovered and developed.
It’s a journey that starts by formulating a hypothesis that predicts the underlying cause of disease and follows that through many rounds of experimentation and testing until we validate that hypothesis. That can only be done by employing machine learning to power and sift the data and to discover previously hidden insights between diseases, pathways, genes, proteins and much more and then use those insights to develop novel compounds to treat that disease for a specific group of patients that are most likely to respond to that medicine.
This is a powerful capability that we can harness through our new partnership – to provide AstraZeneca with new insights into the complex biology of diseases, initially CKD and IPF, and to identify the specific patient endotypes affected by that disease so drug candidates can be discovered and targeted with previously unimagined precision. BenevolentAI is committed to working with you in joint multidisciplinary teams, breaking down traditional drug discovery processes and boundaries to enable more efficient data-driven decision making.
But partnerships aren’t forged on paper. You can’t write a partnership into being. It has to be based on professional respect, shared ambition and a common set of values. And our partnership represents the true fusion of human expertise with technological excellence. Our technology platform combined with your scientific expertise, working together to make profound discoveries; to learn from our failures as well as our successes; to create solutions that help us do better.
That fusion of capabilities is what will help us rise to our moonshot moment.
In his now-famous speech to rally public support for space exploration, President Kennedy spoke of just this approach when he said, “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
And those words are even more prescient today. You do what you do not because it is easy, but because it is difficult. And ultimately because it matters.
That is a phrase that guides our work at BenevolentAI too.
It’s a phrase that shines bright in neon on the wall of our office back home in London. It inspires and unites us in a shared purpose. It shapes our work. Governs our alliances. It defines and guides all that we do.
So, while I may seem an unlikely emissary to this scientific symposium, I believe that AstraZeneca is a great partner and we are all kindred spirits. I am inspired by the important and life-saving work you do.
For the opportunity before us is great; the benefit to humanity potentially limitless. And the need to do better is urgent.
Together, we can meet this moonshot moment.
Joanna Shields, CEO BenevolentAI