In Public Health, Artificial Intelligence will not eat your lunch. People who know how to use it will.

Think of it as a really, really, really good calculator.

René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

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A futuristic calculator sitting on a desk with pens and papers around it.
DALL-E, an AI bot, created this image.

When I worked on my doctoral degree, I had to learn biostatistics at a higher level than what I had learned for my master of public health (MPH) degree. This included learning ways to do mathematics that were new to me. While I used the kind services of some of my friends who were better at “biostats” than I was, I also used a lot of help from online sources.

Some of those sources were online calculators where I could enter the values I wanted to analyze and get results. They’re not complicated calculators, because everything is a formula. Those online calculators just took my input and placed the right numbers in the right places for the formulas. However, they helped me find the right answers when I was in a bind, or they helped confirm the answers I was getting in my own data analysis.

Trust, but verify,” the Skipper always said.

With the dawn of more advanced artificial intelligence tools becoming widely available to everyone, the fear is that those tools will some day replace the work that we’re doing. Instead of coming to me to help investigate an outbreak, someone might just go to an AI and ask it to figure out what made the people sick. The reality is probably not that extreme, not for a while.

In reality, epidemiologists worth their salt will know how to use AI to go through reams of scientific knowledge, evidence, and data to come up with the most likely cause of the outbreak. Artificial intelligence has the advantage of reading/analyzing more data than you can in a shorter time. So, if you have an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease, the AI bot can look at all the evidence in what causes gastrointestinal disease and give you the best guess based on additional data you feed it. And that’s the point… You have to know what data to feed it.

Much like I did with the online calculators and the formulas they’re based on, the user needs to know where to input the data and what data to input. Even with a very simple calculator, you won’t know what is 5 plus 5 if you don’t know which buttons to push. Slide rulers took us to the…

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René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

DrPH in Epidemiology. Associate/JHBSPH. Adjunct/GMU. Epidemiologist. Father. Husband. (He/Him/His/El)