VA Taps Harvard Professor Gil Alterovitz to Serve as AI Director

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Gil Alterovitz, VA

In an effort to expand the role of artificial intelligence in veteran service care and research, the Department of Veterans Affairs has named its first-ever AI director.

Gil Alterovitz’s new position will be based in VA’s Office of Research and Development, and much of his work will focus on big data, according to VA. He has already been working on VA’s goal of putting department data to work for veterans with Scott DuVall of the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, and leads the VA Informatics and Computing Infrastructure.

Alterovitz is also a member of the Precision Medicine Task Force under the White House’s Office of the National Coordinator.

Along with his current experience, Alterovitz brings a tech-heavy educational and professional background to the table. He has degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon in electrical, biomedical and computer engineering (including a doctorate). He’s a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Alterovitz was also one of the core writers of the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy’s National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan, which was updated earlier this year. The policy supports a national AI initiative and includes an additional strategic priority for public-private partnerships.

In his new role, Alterovitz will help VA continue and grow its AI portfolio and discover how the department can use its data to enhance veteran-facing services.

“Given how health care is evolving, AI is really the only way to move forward in terms of reducing costs and providing better care,” Alterovitz said.

For example, the Million Veteran Program, which collects genomic and health data from more than 750,000 consenting veteran volunteers to solve veterans’ health problems, plans to expand to 1 million enrollees — and computers will need to be trained with the help of AI to sort through that data and discover actionable insights. And these AI tools will require the right infrastructure to handle this data securely.

Alterovitz is also leading a sprint within VA modeled after a project he worked on during his time as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow. He co-led a 14-week Health Tech Sprint for the Health and Human Services Department in which 10 organizations created apps and digital tools using open databases from federal agencies.

Alterovitz is hoping to expand VA’s partnerships with outside organizations specializing in AI in a similar way. His team is working with a few organizations that can test small amounts of data in the VA format, build AI tools and develop a program that can be applied to a larger dataset.

But one of the first tasks Alterovitz dove into was surveying the existing use of AI by VA researchers as the department works to build an AI infrastructure. VA is already getting into natural language processing and using AI to match patients to clinical trials, and Alterovitz and his team will work to help VA researchers expand on these goals.

Plus, Alterovitz is exploring new opportunities for using AI, including for cancer imaging and detecting cancer early.

“There’s a lot of exciting work in imaging diagnostics with deep learning, outside the VA, and lots of potential within VA,” Alterovitz said. “But there’s not a lot of activity right now within VA. It’s perhaps a little under-represented. Sometimes images are stored locally, and they’re not accessible [to experts at other locations with AI expertise.]These technologies are new, and we need to bring them into VA.”

And while advanced AI in VA is still relatively new, Alterovitz is optimistic that once the capabilities are developed, VA will be able to do so much more.

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