Should the use of adaptive machine learning systems in medicine be classified as research?

American Journal of Bioethics (forthcoming)
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A novel advantage of the use of machine learning (ML) systems in medicine is their potential to continue learning from new data after implementation in clinical practice. To date, considerations of the ethical questions raised by the design and use of adaptive machine learning systems in medicine have, for the most part, been confined to discussion of the so-called “update problem,” which concerns how regulators should approach systems whose performance and parameters continue to change even after they have received regulatory approval. In this paper, we draw attention to a prior ethical question: whether the continuous learning that will occur in such systems after their initial deployment should be classified, and regulated, as medical research? We argue that there is a strong prima facie case that the use of continuous learning in medical ML systems should be categorized, and regulated, as research and that individuals whose treatment involves such systems should be treated as research subjects.

Author Profiles

Robert Sparrow
Monash University
Joshua Hatherley
Aarhus University
Justin Oakley
Monash University


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