“This machine was much more than a toy; it embodied a whole worldview, and it must have been, for the ancients, wonderfully reassuring to behold.” 

John Seabrook, American writer on the Antikythera Mechanism 


I had the special privilege of giving the keynote talk at the recent Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Biomedical and Health Informatics (BHI) meeting in Ioannina, Greece (sincere thanks to our frequent AIMed faculty Dr. May Wang). While I was there, I had the long-awaited opportunity to visit a scientific relic at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, the Antikythera Mechanism, that has engrossed academic scholars for decades.

The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient Greek astronomical calculator that is considered the world’s first analog computer. This ancient device is far more than a clock or an astrolabe as it appears to be a mechanical planetarium that can also forecast astronomical events such as solar and lunar cycles as well as eclipses. It was discovered by serendipity by deep sea sponge divers around 1900 after residing more than 2,000 years at the bottom of the Aegean Sea near the island of Antikythera. This paperback-sized ancient computer was covered with corroded and calcified materials as a result of its lengthy immersion in the deep oceans. The following are several interesting parallels that I drew between this ancient device and current artificial intelligence in clinical medicine:

  • Technology that is in some ways ahead of its time. Some aspects of artificial intelligence, such as transformers and deep reinforcement learning, are perhaps ahead of its time in deployment in clinical medicine and healthcare. The Antikythera Mechanism had functional capabilities that were far more advanced than previously thought for the Hellenistic Age and therefore were perhaps not fully appreciated by some of its users as well as current historians.
  • Multidisciplinary team needed for full understanding. The enigmatic and complex Antikythera Mechanism required a multidisciplinary investigation (astronomy, astrophysics, mathematics, archeology, philology, radiology, and even horology) for its fragments that took several decades to complete. The current and future understanding of artificial intelligence for clinical medicine will also mandate a multidisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, approach to fully execute its deployment.
  • Engagement leading to additional dividends. The Antikythera discovery led to the world’s first large-scale underwater archeological excavation that even involved the famous French diver Jacque Cousteau at one time. The application of artificial intelligence in clinical medicine and healthcare has led to a deeper appreciation for healthcare data and infrastructure as well as needed updating of information technology.
  • Imaging plays a special role. Finally, just like deep learning opening the current era of AI in medicine with the capability to interpret medical images, the Antikythera Mechanism also has a special coupling to imaging. It was a special three-dimensional X-ray CT machine that imaged the Antikythera Mechanism and provided a special look at the inside of the ancient device, thus enabling a team of specialists to finally understand the inner workings of the Antikythera Mechanism.

A myriad of exciting topics surrounding AI in clinical medicine and healthcare will be discussed at the AIMed Global Summit 2023, scheduled for June 5-7. Hope to see you there! Book your place now

We at AIMed believe in changing healthcare one connection at a time. If you are interested in discussing the contents of this article or connecting, please drop me a line – [email protected]