AI and the Future of Wellness

Artificial intelligence brings powerful developments to the health and well-being sector—along with a note of caution.
In the mental health space, professionals recommend using AI as a supplementary tool, rather than a primary treatment method. Photo: Stephanie Greene

By Jim Servin

The gains of artificial intelligence, AI, in an already exploding arena (last year, the wellness market was valued at $4.4 trillion) have been accelerated by the superhuman capabilities of machines to absorb vast quantities of data and then to instantly strategize, solve, direct. At Dotmatics, a scientific research and development company based in Boston, there is an air of jubilation over the massive time-saving capabilities of AI. Christian Olsen, Dotmatics’ associate vice president, industry principal, biology, sees a critical benefit of AI as freeing up scientists’ time for more impactful pursuits. “If you can automate tasks that are traditionally done by scientists, like collecting, analyzing and interpreting data, scientists are then able to focus on more interesting, more strategic work,” he says. “I can let my creativity, the art of the science, take place.”

Vaccine development, an AI project of keen interest at Dotmatics, focuses on the immune system. “AI will help us untangle the complexity of the immune systems so that vaccines can be developed more intelligently,” says Olsen. “One thing Operation Warp Speed [a government program to accelerate the COVID-19 vaccine] did was it showed us that it shouldn’t take so long to come up with a vaccine. That was under emergency conditions. But it did open the door a little bit to say, Why does it have to take 10 years? Why can’t it take less? AI is going to untangle the systems that those vaccines are meant to support and help. AI is a curious tool. It’s a puzzle-solving machine, where you’re able to piece together information and patterns. That’s a really sweet spot.”

In medicine, AI has made advances in remote patient monitoring, analysis of X-rays and endoscopy to improve esophageal cancer screening. Robotic prosthetics have been given an AI upgrade and have become more efficient. “Advanced algorithms can now analyze medical images with a level of detail that rivals or even surpasses human experts, leading to earlier or more accurate diagnoses,” says James F. Jordan, Distinguished Service Professor of Healthcare and Biotechnology Management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “AI-powered wearables and apps offer real-time health monitoring and personalized recommendations, enabling a proactive approach to wellness. These technologies are especially beneficial for managing chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.”

But AI, in its current form, still has critical limitations. “AI really only works when you have incredibly large datasets that are clean and structured,” Olsen says. “The more data you have, the better your AI predictions or analyses will be.” Notes Lydia Kostopoulos, PhD, who as a global adviser on strategy and emerging technology has been an adviser to government and industry leaders: “Just like algorithms used in other fields, AI doesn’t necessarily represent reality; instead they represent the data that has been used to create it.”

At this stage, data has to catch up with the complexity of the human race, says Jordan. “Current datasets often lack diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, leading to biased algorithms that may not serve all populations equally well.” To illustrate, he offers the scenario of Stoccareddo, a village in northeastern Italy: “The residents have a diet high in saturated fats but exhibit low rates of heart disease, likely due to a genetic mutation. Current AI systems, lacking individual genetic data, would flag a Stoccareddo resident’s diet as a heart attack risk if they were to track their meals on an app like MyFitnessPal. This example highlights the limitations of AI in providing meaningful, individualized health recommendations.”

Wellness leaders are implementing AI into their public platforms. Deepak Chopra, for example, offers Digital Deepak—Interactive Well-Being Guide— a digital twin of himself who dispenses personalized wisdom and guidance, accessing all his articles, talks and books. Built and trained with the AI Foundation technology (available at the Apple App Store, or through Google Play), it gives personalized advice from Dr. Chopra, answers questions about well-being and meditation sessions 24/7.

Other AI-enhanced wellness tools include EEG headbands, which track relaxation and meditation feedback. Upright Go 2 is a wearable posture corrector with vibrational alerts and feedback. BackApp, an AI-integrated desk system, encourages active sitting and enhances posture. Noom blends human coaching with AI technology to offer nutritional guidance, weight loss programs and behavior change techniques. Freeletics, an AI-powered fitness app, delivers virtual coaching and adaptive workouts. In sleep technology, the ZEEQ smart pillow can “speak” to Alexa and other AI devices for data on sleep cycles and duration, and then program the pillow’s alarm to sound when needed. SleepScore is an app that uses AI to analyze sleep patterns and provides insights, tips and recommendations for improving slumber.

In the mental health arena, AI-enhanced treatment, known as “affective computing,” which detects and interprets human emotions, is projected to be a $37 billion industry by 2026. Still, AI relies upon data devoid of intangible, non-digitized qualities such as intuition, compassion, empathy and human presence, causing concern among health professionals. “While there are promising applications, such as AI-powered chatbots for immediate emotional support, these should not replace professional medical advice,” says Jordan. “I advocate a cautious approach, using AI as a supplementary tool rather than a primary treatment method. Unlike conditions like heart disease or cancer, where the objective metrics can be easily gathered, mental health conditions like depression are inherently subjective. What one person describes as deep depression might be considered moderate by another, making it difficult to establish universal metrics that AI can reliably interpret. Ethical considerations, particularly around data privacy and algorithmic bias, will need to be at the forefront as we navigate this new frontier.”

With AI’s incredible ability to problem-solve, it seems inevitable that it will find a way around this shortcoming in design. “There are ongoing efforts to develop ‘empathic AI’ that can recognize human emotions and respond accordingly,” says Jordan. In the process, could AI become sentient, and even spiritual? Could AI be thought of as organic creation? “Artificial intelligence is powered by math and statistics. If one subscribes to the idea that math and statistics is spiritual, then yes, otherwise it is simply a computer code that processes math and statistics,” says Kostopoulos, who advocates for a “hybrid AI-human wellness professional” of the future. “At times,” she continues, “math and statistics will have an engaging user interface that may have an avatar, and it may communicate in human language forms, but it never stops being math and statistics.”