HHS Makes Strategic Moves to Achieve Ultimate ‘Artificial Intelligence Ambition’

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The department’s chief AI officer shed light on what went into a new guiding document—and what’s next.

A recently produced enterprise artificial intelligence strategy is now in place to guide the Health and Human Services Department’s ongoing and upcoming efforts involving the technology.

The 7-page document outlines a strategic approach to broaden tech fluency and accelerate AI-centered pursuits across HHS—and it also establishes an AI Council to help facilitate the massive health agency’s overall implementation.

“Ultimately, this strategy is the first step towards transforming HHS into an AI fueled enterprise,” it reads. 

The action plan was shared Sunday on social media by Oki Mek, the long-time, tech-focused federal official HHS recently selected to serve as its first-ever chief AI officer. In the LinkedIn post, Mek tagged former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios and former Deputy HHS Secretary Eric Hargan, among others who served during former President Donald Trump’s administration. Tucked in the strategy is a note that it aligns with two AI-centered executive orders Trump signed during his term, one to “maintain American leadership in AI,” and another to “promote the use of trustworthy AI.”

Mek told Nextgov Tuesday that HHS’ strategy lines up with the government’s commitments laid out in those still relatively fresh orders—“in both its departmental activities and the broader health and human services ecosystem.”

“The department started planning and discussing the development of the HHS enterprise AI strategy in 2019,” HHS’ CAIO explained over email. “Leadership meetings and workshops with AI leaders were held throughout 2020 at various levels to gain their insights in scaling AI adoption.” 

Across the agency's versatile efforts—which incorporated an AI readiness assessment, convening sessions and more, Mek noted—one common theme heard was the need for an enterprisewide AI strategy document “to serve as a target in accelerating AI use and development at HHS.” 

“Subsequently, the Immediate Office of the Secretary and HHS [Office of the Chief Information Officer] partnered to draft the HHS AI Strategy and enabling AI Governance Structure, and presented [those] to the department leaders for feedback prior to finalization,” he said.

AI is ever-evolving and there is not a unanimous, universal agreement around exactly how to define it. In HHS’ strategy, the term “refers to the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, in order to deliver solutions that can automate routine tasks, draw data-based insights, or augment human activities.” Adoption varies across federal entities, but the agency and its subcomponents are up to several pursuits. The document points to a regulatory framework for AI/machine learning-driven software modifications to provide relevant safety guidelines in-the-works at the Food and Drug Administration, and AI-enabled projects the National Institutes of Health has helped coordinate, including efforts using biomedical imaging analysis for diagnosis. 

According to the document, “an enterprise AI strategy will provide direction and guidance in achieving the department’s AI ambition,” which is with its partners in other sectors to “leverage AI to solve previously unsolvable problems by continuing to lead advances in the health and wellbeing of the American people, responding to the use of AI across the health and human services ecosystem, and scaling trustworthy AI adoption across the department.”

To meet the aims, HHS’ strategy outlines a broad approach and focus areas to promote enterprisewide AI familiarity, best practices applied across efforts and speedier adoption and scaling of that work. The agency’s strategic approach involves prioritizing AI-centered development and applications across its mission areas, such as in funding and regulatory responsibilities—and driving innovation across the broader national healthcare landscape. Part of that latter goal involves pinpointing existing gaps within health and scientific areas “that would benefit from government involvement and AI application.” 

And in an illustrated figure summarizing the novel strategy and structure, HHS defines its role as a regulator, investor, convener, and catalyst of AI. 

Via this strategy, the agency also established an AI Council to execute plans laid out, continue to refine priorities and champion the department’s big-picture vision to play a role pushing forward the technology. The council will streamline AI-enabling support, HHS noted, across four key focus areas: developing an AI-ready workforce and enabling AI culture; encouraging health AI innovation and research and development; democratizing foundational AI tools and resources; and promoting ethical, trustworthy AI use and development. 

A chair and co-chair will steer the AI Council’s moves in carrying out the newly crafted strategic priorities to achieve HHS’ intent. Mek will serve as the co-chair, he confirmed, and the chair will be a designated senior official reporting directly to the agency’s secretary.

Leaders from operating and staff divisions, or Op/StaffDivs, across HHS will comprise the rest of the cadre. 

“AI Council members should be deeply familiar with the mission and operations of their respective Op/StaffDiv and have demonstrated experience with or interest in artificial intelligence,” Mek said. “The composition of the AI Council should include a variety of both technical and non-technical perspectives.”

Now that the strategy has been completely developed, Mek noted the agency’s OCIO AI Office will target a range of activities to support “the stand up and operationalization of HHS’ AI Council and executive order implementation compliance.” Among other efforts, that work will include supporting the office and council in creating an AI community of practice to build familiarity and foster departmentwide AI culture, promoting new and ongoing tech-driving pilot projects, and producing a standard trustworthy AI framework to abide by the prior presidential mandates.

“As the department builds upon its current capabilities and adapts to a changing environment and emerging technology, HHS recognizes that [AI] will be a critical enabler of its mission in the future,” the document said.

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