VA Appoints First Director of Artificial Intelligence

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has appointed their first ever Director of Artificial Intelligence to assist the agency on their quest to optimize their technological capabilities. Gil Alterovitz joins the VA after acting as a core writer of the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan. He is also a professor at Harvard Medical School.

The VA is already using AI technology thought their REACH VET program, enabling them to reduce veterans’ wait times and scan medical records to evaluate risk of suicide.

In a release announcing the new appointment, Alterovitz noted, “Given how health care is evolving, AI is really the only way to move forward in terms of reducing costs and providing better care… AI is key to really taking advantage of that data to help Vets and potentially others, as well.”

Alterovitz will be based out of the Office of Research and Development within the VA and will also oversee the training of “hybrid” clinical scientists to use data science to improve healthcare, an ongoing program at the VA since 2015.

Alterovitz also hopes to leverage private sector research and development to assist the VA in their mission.

“There’s a lot of exciting work in imaging diagnostics with deep learning, outside the VA, and lots of potential within VA,” says Alterovitz. “But there’s not a lot of activity right now within VA. It’s perhaps a little under-represented. Sometimes images are stored locally, and they’re not accessible [to experts at other locations with AI expertise.] These technologies are new, and we need to bring them into VA.”

While Congress has wrestled with the ethical implications of AI in government, Alterovitz believes much of the anxieties surrounding the technology come from a lack of education and perspective which he hopes to bring forward. He looks to past technological advancements to defend his position.

“What ended up happening was that people realized technology augmented things, rather than displacing people,” he says. “It helped them in some way, or made things more efficient, so they could spend more time on things they wanted to do, or that were more relevant to their core mission. There were background tasks they didn’t have to deal with as much.”

"It's about establishing a human-AI collaborative environment," Alterovitz concludes.

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