Artificial Intelligence, or “AI” is already helping us to get from point A to point B in our GPS navigation systems. It is also what enables sites like Facebook to feed you advertisements, seemingly about products you were only thinking about buying!
But, soon AI will have a much more useful application. It will likely be the most advanced diagnostic tool ever developed for doctors, and will change the very landscape of healthcare.
AI is already being used in medicine. Currently, it’s most common application is as software or a computer program that is capable of learning from large amounts of data and making predictions to guide care or help patients manage a particular disease or condition such as diabetes, or obesity.
It is already being used in diagnostics to detect certain eye diseases, and does other behind-the-scenes work such as helping doctors to interpret MRI scans and other imaging tests used to diagnose some forms of cancer.
Now, parts of the health system are starting to use it directly with patients. During some clinic and telemedicine appointments, AI-powered software asks patients initial questions about their symptoms that physicians or nurses normally pose.
And an AI program featuring a talking image of the Greek philosopher Aristotle is starting to help University of Southern California students cope with stress.
Researchers say this push into medicine is at an early stage, but they expect the technology to grow by helping people stay healthy, assisting doctors with tasks and doing more behind-the-scenes work. They also think patients will get used to AI in their care just like they’ve gotten accustomed to using the technology when they travel or shop.
Will AI Replace Doctors?
Experts say that patients should not fear that AI will replace doctors, or that all of their medical decisions will be made by machines. AI, at least for the near term, has limits.
Even the most advanced software has yet to master important parts of care like a doctor’s ability to feel compassion or use common sense. “Our mission isn’t to replace human beings where only human beings can do the job,” said University of Southern California research professor Albert Rizzo, speaking to the Associated Press.
Rizzo and his team have been working on a program that uses AI and a virtual reality character named “Ellie” that was originally designed to determine whether veterans returning from deployment might need therapy.
Ellie appears on computer monitors and leads a person through initial questions. Ellie makes eye contact, nods and uses hand gestures like a human therapist. It even pauses if the person gives a short answer, to push them to say more.
“After the first or second question, you kind of forget that it’s a robot,” said Cheyenne Quilter, a West Point cadet helping to test the program.
Ellie does not diagnose or treat. Instead, human therapists used recordings of their sessions to help determine what the patient might need.
“This is not AI trying to be your therapist,” said another researcher, Gale Lucas. “This is AI trying to predict who is most likely to be suffering.”
The team that developed Ellie also has put together a newer AI-based program to help students manage stress and stay healthy.
Ask Ari is making its debut at USC this semester to give students easy access to advice on dealing with loneliness, getting better sleep or handling other complications that crop up in college life.
Where Else Is AI Being Used in Healthcare?
Aside from these examples where AI is already being successfully used to help people with emotional health issues, artificial intelligence also is at work in more common forms of medicine.
The tech company AdviNOW Medical and 98point6, which provides treatment through secure text messaging, both use artificial intelligence to question patients at the beginning of an appointment.
AdviNOW CEO James Bates said their AI program decides what questions to ask and what information it needs. It passes that information and a suggested diagnosis to a physician who then treats the patient remotely through telemedicine.
The company currently uses the technology in a handful of Safeway and Albertsons grocery store clinics in Arizona and Idaho. But it expects to expand to about 1,000 clinics by the end of next year.
Eventually, the company wants to have AI diagnose and treat some minor illnesses, Bates said
Researchers say much of AI’s potential for medicine lies in what it can do behind the scenes by examining large amounts of data or images to spot problems or predict how a disease will develop, sometimes quicker than a doctor.
Dr. Eric Topol predicts in his book “Deep Medicine” that artificial intelligence will change medicine, in part by freeing doctors to spend more time with patients. But he also notes that the technology will not take over care.
Even the most advanced program cannot replicate empathy, Topol said. Patients stick to their treatment and prescriptions more and do better if they know their doctor is sympathetic to what they and their families are going through and wants to see them pull through.