Why do we want AI?

What is the point of artificial intelligence?
17 October 2017

Interview with 

Hitesh Sanganee, AstraZeneca,




Hitesh Sanganee is the Director of Emerging Innovations at AstraZeneca, so he explained his take on AI to Chris Smith.

Hitesh - I guess, in the pharmaceutical industry we’re obviously, constantly trying to discover new medicines and it’s not a trivial exercise as we’re finding out. In fact, we spend 6 billion dollars a year trying to do this. We see it utilised in a number of different ways in terms of  drug discovery. I’m a chemist by training and I think we’ve been using it in that screen. Also drug repositioning, so something for example looking a new disease area. We might try and understand some data, put it together, use algorithms which, essentially, I consider as artificial intelligence, and use that to come with new ways to reposition molecules i.e think about indications for drugs. So there are a lot of drugs out there that might work in one disease areas but you can use intelligence to maybe reposition them and say could it also work in this disease area?

Chris - But why is that better than a chemist?

Hitesh - I think it augmenting chemist’s working. I think that’s how I like to think of intelligence. I’m a pragmatist and I like to think this kind of new technology is going to help me discover drugs in better ways and more efficiently.

Chris - But how? What specifically are going to be the targets you’re going to go for and how does this integrate into the existing business because we’ve known for a long time how we cook up some molecules, and we try them and we see if they do something? How is this going to revolutionise your business?

Hitesh - In so many ways. As I said, in drug discovery for example, as a chemist what I used to do and I still do it now and then is we get a lot of data from our biologists and we have to try and design a molecule to optimise it. Because when we make a molecule, unfortunately, the first molecule you make isn’t the drug. We have to usually end up making 30,000 molecules and then we’ll hopefully find that drug in there.Typically, what you’re trying to do is to bring lots of different datasets together and then work out what to make next. So, I think, artificial intelligence in that area will, hopefully, speed up that process and say actually, have you thought about making this molecule?

Georgia - How much do you think that AI is being used in different businesses? Is it everyone who’s investing into this?

Hitesh - I think there’s a lot of hype to be honest with you, but I think there’s definitely people who are using it. We’re definitely using it and I’m hearing from my colleagues that are currently doing an MBA, and I’m seeing a lot of people from other industries and they’re also talking about it. So I think yeah, it’s definitely being used in other industries, especially in ours. 

Chris - When people are modeling where they see the industry going and how much this is going to be worth, what sorts of numbers are the putting on this in terms of what contribution it could make to a sector, particularly pharmaceuticals?

Hitesh - I have not really thought about that, but I think if it can speed up drug discovery for us. I it can speed up from us costing 6 billion dollars a year in research. I think it cost costs about one a half billion in average to discover a drug. If we can speed that up by half - it maybe possible then about 600 mill. It could be huge.

Georgia - In terms of if we really cracked artificial general intelligence, why would that be a good thing? What kind of uses could we have for something like super powered way down the line?

Hnery- The sky’s the limit really. It’s very hard to even imagine what artificial general intelligence could be like, especially if you’re thinking about something even smarter than a human being. But just imagine if we brought into our world a being who was far smarter than us, who was to us as we are to chimpanzees or simpler animals. Think about everything we could do to help chimpanzees if we put our minds to it, and imagine if we could get a being like that on side for us. Everything from extended lifespans, to amazing new technologies, to all our dreams come true.

Chris - Simon, you were a parliamentary candidate - you're trying to get parliament interest in this kind of thing. What sorts of numbers were floating around when parliamentarians get together and talk about this kind of thing, what sorts of numbers are people saying in terms of how much of a difference this could make?

Simon - Well, I mean that’s the big question. I think people don’t really want to tie themselves too much in a specific prediction. We’ve had various reports from, for instance, the World Economic Forum put out their fourth industrial revolution report which suggests that AI could play a completely transformational role in the global economy. We’re going to be talking about jobs later on and AI could move us back into economic growth rates higher than anything else we’ve ever seen. But, on the other hand, we know that all the technological progress that we’ve had so far, which has involved a lot of breakthroughs which were supposed to transform the economy have actually combined with a period of quite stagnant growth.

Now there have been various headwinds facing the global economy in that period of time but still, technology hasn’t been able to break out of that box and return us to the kind of growth rates that we saw through the 50s, 60s and 70s. I think there is a lot of scepticism that, at least in the short to medium term, there is going to be this transformational shift, albeit connected with a lot of hype about the possibilities, and trying to square that circle and do something in an honest way is really hard.


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