Another factor limiting AI applications is the small budgets and profits to be made in public health, which lowers the likely return on investment in new technologies. And many public health projects go through ethics boards that determine the rules around use of public data and research protocols. If anything, these processes “can be cautious to a fault” and delay approval, according to Henry Kautz, a computer science professor at the University of Rochester.

That doesn’t mean AI won’t be utilized in public health in the near future in a significant way. The problems are simply too big, and AI’s potential too enticing, not to try.

“There are problems out there waiting for us,” Tambe says.

Another challenge in applying AI to public health is the field’s focus on whole populations, not individuals. Unlike other industries that create tools that individuals can put into use—such as apps for recognizing farm pests or personalized learning tools—public health demands solutions for broad populations with an inherently wider set of needs. This often means that data and algorithms can only take us so far before humans must get involved.

Take foodborne illnesses: AI algorithms can sift quickly through large datasets to spot problems, but that’s only half the battle—government inspectors must then ground truth the findings with in-person inspections.

For the chatbot Layla, that means providing phone numbers to real people for further help for search queries that require follow up, like where to get STD testing or services for sexual assault victims. Lloyd, Layla’s community manager, says that more outreach work needs to be done to understand and address issues that are too nuanced for current AI.

“Make no mistake, the chatbot is not the end-all,” Lloyd says.

Lloyd continues to connect with the young women Layla is meant to serve in focus groups, and makes sure the word gets out with social media campaigns and posters at places like hair salons.

“They need an ongoing conversation,” Lloyd says.

Still, for underserved populations like teenage girls in Syracuse, AI like Layla has its place and has room to grow. Yanira had suggested other capabilities for the site, like a period tracker. In the meantime, Yanira says she would recommend it to friends and even her two other little sisters.

“It is kind of like another big sister,” she says.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Share this article

National Corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Brilliant.org. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.