Synthetic Data: Cheap, Like Fast Food

May 25, 2022

Fabricated data may well solve some of the privacy issues around healthcare-related machine learning, but what new problems might it create? The Wall Street Journal examines the technology in, “Anthem Looks to Fuel AI Efforts with Petabytes of Synthetic Data.” Reporter Isabelle Bousquette informs us Anthem CIO Anil Bhatt has teamed up with Google Cloud to build the synthetic data platform. Interesting choice, considering the health insurance company has been using AWS since 2017.

The article points out synthetic data can refer to either anonymized personal information or entirely fabricated data. Anthem’s effort involves the second type. Bousquette cites Bhatt as well as AI and automation expert Ritu Jyoti as she writes:

“Anthem said the synthetic data will be used to validate and train AI algorithms that identify things like fraudulent claims or abnormalities in a person’s health records, and those AI algorithms will then be able to run on real-world member data. Anthem already uses AI algorithms to search for fraud and abuse in insurance claims, but the new synthetic data platform will allow it to scale. Personalizing care for members and running AI algorithms that identify when they may require medical intervention is a more long-term goal, said Mr. Bhatt. In addition to alleviating privacy concerns, Ms. Jyoti said another advantage of synthetic data is that it can reduce biases that exist in real-world data sets. That said, she added, you can also end up with data sets that are worse than real-world ones. ‘The variation of the data is going to be very, very important,’ said Mr. Bhatt, adding that he believes the variation in the synthetic data will ultimately be better than the company’s real-world data sets.”

The article notes the use of synthetic data is on the rise. Increasing privacy and reducing bias both sound great, but that bit about potentially worse data sets is concerning. Bhatt’s assurance is pleasant enough, but how can will we know whether his confidence pans out? Big corporations are not exactly known for their transparency.

Cynthia Murrell, May 25, 2022


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