Baroness Joanna Shields - CEO at BenevolentAI

June 26, 2020

Hi Everyone.  I am Joanna Shields, CEO of BenevolentAI. I am delighted to have this opportunity once again to speak at  ‘We are Tech Woman’. I want to thank Vanessa and the marvellous team behind this event.  Every year you shine a spotlight on aspiring women who are creating, innovating and accomplishing marvellous things but this year, it is even more important that we come together and wrap each other in a giant virtual hug of support. Heaven knows we all need it.

The first five months of this new decade have been unprecedented in our lifetimes.  As the pandemic raged through our communities and lockdowns were enforced, the entire global community came to a standstill. What followed has been profound in terms of the economic shock still reverberating but in how that shock exposed deep inequities in our society and especially for women.

As we all witnessed  the daily news recount the number of souls who had lost their lives to COVID-19, we were forced to recognise deep inequalities in our society. We learned that the chance of catching this virus was much higher for the everyday heroes whose jobs require interaction with the public or taking care of others in a hospital or care home. We are forever grateful for their bravery and kindness and compassion. We also learned that our ability to fight the disease is often correlated to the economic circumstances of the patient and whether they have access to quality healthcare or take medicines to treat comorbidities common among ethnic and disadvantaged groups.


This pandemic has laid bare inequalities in our society that we can no longer ignore. And on top of all of those challenges, we have had a massive global reckoning about deeply rooted injustice in society and in policing against black and ethnic minorities.  I pray that we will finally now see the roots of change take hold and we can genuinely unify and bring communities together.

Over the past few decades, women have been making slow but steady financial and career gains and we have made progress in achieving more balance with our partners in terms of childcare and home responsibilities.  But University of Sussex researchers found that during lockdown, 72% of mothers described themselves as the default parent and 70% for being either completely or mostly responsible for homeschooling.  Shouldering home burdens disproportionately is not fair to women and we can’t let this pandemic set us back.


These stats reflect the circumstances of women in the UK but this phenomenon is affecting women all over the world.  Women are being disproportionately hurt by the economic fallout of coronavirus. Data from the Fuller Project takes note that “the overwhelming majority of unemployment applicants in the US in mid - to late March were women'' and the UN recently warned that limited gains made in the past decades toward gender equality are at risk of being rolled back. UNESCO figures show that school closures have affected 1.5 billion of children across the world and for girls in developing countries, the worry is that this could result in less girls returning to school following the pandemic further widening the gender education gap.  Finally, the stress of the crisis and conditions of quarantine has increased violence against women by more than 25% according to the UN and at even higher rates for vulnerable children.

We have a long recovery ahead of us and we must be vigilant against the reflex of society to return to its deep grooves of inequality.  We can’t afford to lose the hard fought progress we achieved over decades. Now more than ever we need to act to support equality for women and  I for one will be doing my part post pandemic to ensure that not just our society and economy recovers but that women and families recover and prosper as well.


Given our recent collective experience, we have never been more aware of the fragility of human life. Which brings me to the topic of health and technology. I think it is appropriate in times like these to be audacious and to ask why with all of the advances in technology are so many people are suffering from disease? Surely, the right to live healthy is a basic human right. So why can’t we build a world where no disease goes untreated?


Well, I believe that we can. But that world will not naturally emerge; we must actively create it. Today thousands of diseases have no treatment, and yet we spend tens of billions each year supporting a broken system that leaves millions of patients without hope for a cure. This has to change. Patients deserve better. To start, we need to leverage breakthrough technologies and make the best use of the world’s vast and ever-expanding universe of biomedical information for the benefit of all.

At BenevolentAI, our team is mission-driven to preserve human life, and I am immensely proud of the work we do. But the technology we build is just the spark. By augmenting human intelligence, our AI and machine learning tools empower scientists to discover life-changing medicines. And when faced with this escalating global pandemic, we turned our AI drug discovery platform toward identifying existing drugs that could be used to treat COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed.

Although many scientists and technology leaders including Bill Gates in his now infamous TED talk in 2015 had warned of the likelihood of a highly infectious airborne virus potentially leaping species to infect humans on a mass scale, it seems that nearly every country in the world was caught off guard.  As a result, a global lockdown of nearly 40% of the world's population became necessary whilst governments dusted off pandemic plans, established emergency supply chains for protective equipment and developed testing protocols in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The sudden appearance and rapid global spread of the novel coronavirus illustrated the need to leverage emerging technologies to hunt down treatments to combat the virus until a vaccine could be developed. And following China’s publication on 12 January 2020 of the genetic sequence of COVID-19, the race was on to identify drugs that might have a prophylactic effect of reducing the severity of the virus or that could inhibit the virus and the body’s hyper-inflammatory response to it.  

We have learned that during a pandemic, speed is of the essence – and machine learning models excel in handling data in fast-changing circumstances. Computing power and algorithms can be harnessed to work as tireless and unbiased super-researchers, analysing chemical, biological and medical databases to identify potential drugs that could lead to faster treatments. AI systems save time and their agnostic approach processes all available biomedical information to generate leads that may be overlooked by traditional research.

At BenevolentAI, we had never before worked on viruses so we set up a specialist scientific team in late January and launched an investigation using our AI drug discovery platform to identify approved drugs which could potentially inhibit the viral progression of COVID19 and that could be given to patients immediately. The Benevolent biomedical knowledge graph surfaced a number of potential drugs and through a triage process using deep learning models, algorithms and tools, our scientists identified baricitinib, an approved rheumatoid arthritis drug as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

Baricitinib, an IL6 inhibitor was a drug known to have the effect of reducing inflammation in the body but what was not known and what our AI algorithms identified is that the drug also had anti-viral properties that could inhibit endocytosis and reduce the body’s extreme immune response referred to as the cytokine storm.  Baricitinib is a small molecule, taken orally and renally cleared in twelve hours, The drug is readily available in the global supply chain and it can be used alone or in combination with other therapies such as remdesivir.


At the start of February BenevolentAI published these research findings in The Lancet, which was followed by a second publication in Lancet Infectious Diseases. By March, small groups of Italian physicians battling the virus on the frontlines commenced treating COVID-19 patients with baricitinib.  Those investigator-led trials yielded successful outcomes and Eli Lilly, which owns the drug baricitinib has subsequently validated anti-inflammatory/anti-viral properties in vitro for COVID-19 and on 10th April, announced it had entered into an agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to test baricitinib in clinical trials and along side of remdesvir as a treatment protocol and in early June announced a global randomised clinical trial.

The incredible speed at which this hypothesis moved from computer to bench to bedside demonstrates the far-reaching potential of AI models and algorithms for identifying new drugs for treatment of disease.  While the urgency of the coronavirus outbreak means it makes sense to hunt through already approved drugs, the greatest potential for AI lies in uncovering brand-new treatments for complex diseases with poorly understood mechanisms of action that have to date defied conventional research efforts. Indeed, this is where BenevolentAI’s primary effort is focused; working on complex diseases that currently have no effective treatment such as Glioblastoma, ALS, Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis to name a few.

Data is the lifeblood of AI-powered research. AI can interrogate vast quantities of biomedical data but the quality of that data has a direct impact on the value of hypotheses generated, the molecules designed and the patients identified as potentially benefiting from a treatment.  COVID-19 is ultimately a novel problem, and therefore the difficulty has been in collecting and applying quality data in a rapid timeframe.  Urgency can lead to data being collected haphazardly jeopardizing results and usefulness in decision making. And we can’t take that risk when we deal with human beings who are suffering from disease. In addition, the pandemic has made clear the importance of collaboration and data sharing between governments, academic researchers and businesses but this must be accomplished in a way that also protects patient anonymity.

The success of AI in drug discovery is contingent upon access to large datasets and a collaborative mindset which in the highly competitive traditional biopharma culture is a challenge indeed.


To that end, alongside dozens of other scientific organizations and businesses, BenevolentAI signed the Wellcome Trust Pledge, to ensure that this and other research findings relevant to the coronavirus outbreak are shared rapidly and openly. And there are many reasons to be hopeful. Just last week the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge (also called CORD-19) was launched adding to already released open data sets such as  COVID-Net, a convolutional neural network of chest imaging for use in detecting COVID-19.  And at last count, over 100 vaccine projects in development around the world facilitated by the better understanding of the genetic makeup of the virus and the open tracking of its mutations to identify if different strains are emerging. All of this provides a glimpse of the beginnings of a more open and adaptable R&D model that can accelerate the delivery of innovative and life-changing products to patients.

Another challenge centres around the issue of trust in AI and what is referred to as the ‘black box’ problem. Machine learning technologies are rarely able to explain the patterns they find. For humans - who demand transparency, evidence and a clear understanding of rationale is essential. Skepticism also arises from the simple fact that because algorithms are created by humans they can occasionally be wrong. In both cases, building trust involves a greater symbiosis between humans and machine to refine predictions and  train models so that scientists and researchers can understand where predictions have come from. And finally, we must ensure that the AI we are building is magnanimous, not malevolent. That bias is kept in check and that future R&D serves all of humanity equally. The diversity of the data we use to power our AI and machine learning must represent society as a whole so that no one is left behind.

AI should not be regarded as a silver bullet though, be it in a pandemic response, drug discovery or healthcare generally. AI alone is not enough. In a connected world in which pathogens spread at unprecedented speed, advanced technologies like AI and machine learning can be weapons to help us fight back. But while AI has proved its worth in the battle against disease, ultimately it is the fusion of machine intelligence and human ingenuity that holds the key to a world where no disease goes untreated.  And today, that world is within our grasp.

Thank you all for listening and please stay safe and well.

Published July 15, 2020

Source: LinkedIn