Good morning, thanks for that warm welcome and, Gil Alterovitz, thanks for the kind introduction. More importantly, my thanks to you and your team for hosting this important event.
AI is changing the health care landscape and it’s having a real impact in the lives of Vets across America. Our team is hard at work exploring how AI can help VA make better, faster, and more informed Veteran-centric decisions—improving Veteran health outcomes and benefits decisions while eliminating redundant administrative tasks and promoting collaboration across VA and with our federal and community partners. We’re still early in this journey. But we’re excited by AI’s potential to help us serve Vets with data-driven decisions, and help us continue providing more benefits and more care to more Veterans than ever before. That’s why we’re partnering with VSOs, Congress, industry, and academia—with many of you in this room—to leverage the very best that AI has to offer.
Now, you’ll hear about some of these exciting AI technologies over the course of this conference. But I’d like to take a step back and focus on something that is both simple in theory, yet profoundly challenging in practice. That’s achieving trust. The kind of trust that Vets need to give VA a chance, maybe give VA a second chance. Trust that culminates with the one single statistic that matters most at VA—Veterans lives saved, or improved, by the work we can do, together. Now, all the technology in the world won’t build the kind of trust that brings Vets to VA and keeps them coming back to VA. VA’s people do. Our people make sure that Vets are at the heart of everything we do.
AI can’t build trust. But bad AI can certainly break trust between VA and Veterans. So we need to get these emerging AI technologies right. If we do, trustworthy AI can help VA scale our impact, improve our outcomes, and speed the delivery of our care—ensuring that every Vet is getting access to the benefits and care they earned and so richly deserve.
Here’s what I’m talking about. A Veteran—we’ll call her Kate—recently retired from the Marine Corps. When Kate came home and hung up her uniform for the last time, she found herself struggling. Leaving the military can be hard, for every servicemember, regardless of their rank, number of deployments, or time in. But for Kate, life seemed to be dealing her a series of especially bad hands, one after the next. First, she was laid off at work. Soon after, Kate lost her home. Her relationships were falling apart. Kate was understandably stressed. Her anxiety at an all-time high.
Then one day, while riding the city bus, Kate saw a billboard about preventing Veteran suicide. Something told her—call it divine intervention, intuition, or a bit of luck—something told her to call the phone number on that billboard. Kate needed someone to talk to. Kate needed someone to listen. And that one call, well, it changed everything for her. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the call center responder—Sarah—built a bond of trust with Kate. So, Kate opened up. She accepted help. For the next four weeks, Kate was housed in a nearby hotel while she arranged for her own place and looked for a job. And Sarah called and emailed Kate every week, just to check in. Sarah continued building on that trust. Now, with Sarah’s help, with VA’s help, Kate’s life is back on track. Recently, she was promoted in her new job. Kate says, “I was amazed that folks still cared this much about others … if it wasn’t for Sarah and her attention … I can’t imagine what I’d be going through.” One more Veteran’s life improved—maybe even saved—and there’s nothing more important than that. Nothing.
Now Kate’s story is not unique. But what makes Kate’s story so special is that she reached out before suicide was on the table, before the boiling point, before the crisis. Because listen, there’s no single path to suicide. It’s often not just one thing, one problem, or one challenge in life. Most often, it’s an accumulation of challenges and setbacks. And it’s our job at VA to be there when Vets need us, long before the crisis arrives—by their sides, arms around them, every step of the way. Building trust, just like Sarah did with Kate. That’s how we can build trust at the next level.
Admittedly, it’s a hard thing to do well for one Vet, or two, or a thousand. And with over eighteen and a half million Vets across America—and less than half those enrolled in VA health care—building trust becomes exponentially more difficult, and complex. Let’s face it. VA’s people can’t do that important work alone. Technology helps. Artificial intelligence may help profoundly. With your help, artificial intelligence may very well help us get our arms around millions of Vets every step of the way.
This AI-driven future at VA isn’t some sci-fi story. VA is already testing new, innovative AI solutions. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of innovative new AI tools out there: tools to help accurately summarize clinical encounters so clinicians don’t spend all night typing up notes; tools to help a radiologist interpret an ambiguous scan; tools to prevent Veteran-targeted cyber security crimes, to process benefits claims accurately and efficiently, and so much more. Now, AI will never be able to take the place of a compassionate, caring individual. But it has the potential to connect millions of new Vets to VA, introducing them to incredible VA employees like Sarah; building trust, and drastically improving and saving Veterans’ lives.
But Vets will never get the opportunity to use these powerful AI tools to their full potential if AI is designed to be unsafe, biased, or insecure. And in recent years we’ve seen many examples of the perils of poorly designed AI—engrained bias, a proliferation of misinformation, and diminishing privacy rights. What I’m talking about is trust. Trust. Think about the stakes here. We’re asking servicemembers, Veterans, and their families to trust us, to literally trust us with their lives. There’s no greater privilege than having that trust, and there’s no higher bar to meet. It’s hard to earn, from anyone.
Trust only comes by building it, incrementally—in every interaction, in every moment, throughout a Veteran’s life. And when we get it right, trust accumulates. And, then, Vets know that we are there—right there with them, and that we’ll never forget them.
But we can break that trust in an instant, especially if we compromise their privacy, if we expose them to bad information, or if we mislead them in those moments of crisis when a Vet needs us most. So, we have to pair AI with our age-old comparative advantage at VA: a non-negotiable, tireless commitment to positive, Veteran-centric outcomes.
Today, I’m proud to announce that VA is the first federal agency to publicly launch a Trustworthy AI Framework that integrates all of the White House’s AI work into a single framework; from the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, to Executive Order 14091 that advances support for underserved communities, to guidance from other agencies, like the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Risk Management Framework, and beyond.
This Trustworthy AI Framework provides the foundation on which VA will design, develop, acquire, and use AI systems in a manner that fosters Veteran trust and confidence, delivering timely access to world-class health care and earned benefits by leveraging emerging AI technologies, all while adhering to the highest ethical standards, including protecting Veterans’ privacy and civil rights. This framework will help us build AI that is safe, secure, unbiased, transparent, accountable, and effective. All of which is to say, building trustworthy AI to complete the tasks that it does best, so VA’s people can do the work that they do best.
In closing, I want to reflect on something President Biden often says about serving Vets:
He says: “Our country’s most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home.” The second part of that sacred obligation, that’s ours at VA to fulfill. And it comes back to the promise our country makes whenever someone signs up to serve in the military.
It’s a promise that’s as simple as it is fundamental. If you serve us, we’ll serve you when you come home. If you take care of us, we’ll take care of you. If you fight for us, we’ll fight for you. Keeping that promise to Vets has never been more important.
The tools we’re building at VA are a critical part of our ability to keep that promise. But here’s the bottom line. Technology won’t do it alone. All the technology in the world won’t keep that promise without VA employees who keep Vets at the heart of their care. The VA team is the best workforce in the federal government, folks who want to make real differences in the lives of Veterans. I’m proud to call them my colleagues. Our vision for building trustworthy AI is personal, and it’s urgent. So, whether you’re with government, academia, or industry, I want to invite you to join us in achieving that vision. Because Vets deserve our very best, and we will never settle for anything less. Thank you for having me today. Have a great summit.
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