OpenAI Startup Fund teams up with Arianna Huffington to back AI healthcare venture

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Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman are throwing their support behind a new venture, Thrive AI Health, which aims to build AI-powered assistive technology to promote healthy lifestyles.

Backed by Huffington’s mental wellness firm Thrive Global and the OpenAI Startup Fund, an early-stage venture fund closely associated with OpenAI, Thrive AI Health will seek to build an “AI health coach” to offer personalized advice on sleep, food, fitness, stress management, and “connection,” according to a press release issued Monday.

DeCarlos Love, who previously led fitness and health experiences at Google’s Fitbit subsidiary, primarily on the tech giant’s Pixel Watch wearable, has been appointed CEO. Thrive AI Health counts Walmart co-founder Helen Walton’s Alice L. Walton Foundation among its strategic investors, and the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine is one of Thrive AI Health’s initial healthcare partners.

It’s not yet clear how much capital Thrive AI Health’s backers have invested. We’ve reached out for clarification and will update this post when we receive a response.

According to Huffington and Altman (via a Time op-ed), Thrive AI Health’s ultimate goal is to train an AI health “coach” on scientific research and medical data, leveraging an upcoming health data platform and collaboration with partners including Stanford Medicine. Huffington and Altman describe a type of virtual assistant in the smartphone app and Thrive’s enterprise products that learns from users’ behavior and, in real time, offers health-related “hints” and suggestions.

“Most health tips at this point, while important, are general,” Huffington and Altman write. “An AI health coach would make it possible to tailor highly accurate suggestions to each individual: replace your third afternoon soda with water and lemon; go for a 10-minute walk with your child after picking him up from school at 3:15 p.m.; start your relaxation routine at 10 p.m. because you have to get up at 6 a.m. the next morning and catch your flight.”

Thrive AI Health is the latest in a long series of attempts in the tech industry to build health-focused apps with AI-powered personalization. Many have faced insurmountable business, technical, and regulatory hurdles.

IBM’s Watson Health division, launched in 2015, was supposed to analyze reams of medical data — far more quickly than any human doctor could — to find insights that could improve health outcomes. The company reportedly spent $4 billion to bolster Watson Health through acquisitions, but the technology proved inefficient at best — and even harmful at worst.

On the other hand, Babylon Health, an NHS-partnered health chatbot startup that once promised it could “automate” consultations with medical professionals, shut down after investigations revealed there was no evidence the company’s technology worked better than a doctor. Once worth more than $4.2 billion, Babylon filed for bankruptcy in 2023 – eventually selling off its assets for less than $1 million.

In some cases, AI has been found to perpetuate negative stereotypes within health research and the broader medical community. For example, a recent study showed that OpenAI’s AI-powered chatbot platform, ChatGPT, often answers questions related to kidney function and skin thickness in a way that reinforces misconceptions about biological differences between black and white people.

Another study found that even trained clinicians can be fooled by biased AI models — suggesting that rooting out biases can be challenging.

To keep critics at bay, Huffington and Altman are pitching Thrive AI Health as a more careful, thoughtful approach to health than prior approaches — a way to “democratize” health coaching and “address growing health disparities” in a secure, privacy-sensitive way. The company has hired Gbenga Ogedegbe, director of NYU Langone’s Institute for Excellence in Health Equity, as an advisor, and claims that the research data its products use will be “peer reviewed” — and users will have the final say on what information Thrive AI Health’s products use to inform their recommendations.

But if history is any indication, it may prove extremely difficult for Thrive AI Health to strike a balance between “democratizing” its technology and preserving patient privacy.

In 2016, it was revealed that Google’s AI division, DeepMind, was given data on over one million patients by the Royal Free NHS Trust in London as part of an app development project, without the patients’ knowledge or consent. Recent large-scale data breaches such as the UnitedHealth and 23andMe scandals show how dangerous it is to hand over sensitive health data to third parties.

Perhaps Thrive AI Health will avoid the pitfalls of its competitors and predecessors. Yet it’s likely to be an uphill climb — and skeptics will be keeping a close eye on it.

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