DOES the possibility of C-3PO standing by the side of your hospital bed, his gold metal fingers operating on your heart, fill you with dread or with hope? What about the idea of sitting down on the psychologist’s couch with Data to talk through your feelings, or getting Wall-E to help look after your elderly parents in a nursing home?
It may sound far-fetched, but there are those within the medical profession who say the role of doctor or surgeon could one day be close to redundant, overtaken by forms of artificial intelligence (AI) that can diagnose and treat illness and injury better than any human medical professional could. This new reality could be just a decade or two away.
In fact, in many areas of the healthcare system, the rise (and rise) of AI has already begun.
STATE OF PLAY
AS A world-renowned AI scientist, University of New South Wales professor Toby Walsh has likely had to say, “Don’t panic!” on a regular basis recently. “I don’t think there’s going to be a shortage of doctors any time soon - patients will always seek out other humans to interpret information or to deliver bad news - but the balance of skills will change in a significant way,” he says.
“I wouldn’t advise my children to specialise in pulmonary disease or radiology because these are areas leading the charge in the use of artificial intelligence,” he adds.
“In fact, the best diagnostics we have for pulmonary disease today is a computer program.”
The use of robotics in medical health isn’t new. Robots already lend a hand in spinal surgery, with models such as Renaissance allowing surgeons to place screws in spines with 99 per cent accuracy (9 per cent higher than conventional methods).
The famous da Vinci surgical system (where surgeon’s hand motions are translated into smaller, more precise robotic movements) is now used across a wide range of procedures, from prostate cancer treatment to performing heart valve surgery.
In the US, a robot called Watson assists in diagnoses and produces management plans for oncology patients by synthesising information from millions of reports, patient records, clinical trials and journals. Meanwhile, Woebot, the world’s first robotic therapist, has more than two million conversations a week.
Although surgeons at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington have recently developed a surgical robot (called STAR) which can suture soft tissue, Walsh says we’re still years away from having the aforementioned C-3PO-style robots in our theatres.
“The feedback is that we still have a long way to go before we build enough dexterity and sensitivity in robots to perform the kind of work we’re all talking about,” he says.
“At this point, there’s almost always a highly-skilled surgeon at the other end controlling what’s being done.”
IF WE look at the companies invested in healthcare AI (Google, Apple, Dell, HewlettPackard, to name a few), it’s clear the market is big business.
So big, in fact, that according to market research company Frost & Sullivan, AI in the healthcare and life sciences sphere is projected to grow by 40 per cent per year, to $8.5 billion in 2021.
There’s a new development every other day: The University of Adelaide recently announced that its AI system can predict a person’s life span just as well as a human doctor. Meanwhile, a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA showed that Google’s deep-learning algorithm can detect diabetic retinopathy with higher than 90 per cent accuracy. There’s much to anticipate, but what can we expect from AI in our hospitals?
“We can soon expect to see that virtual reality has a place in training junior surgeons,” associate professor Susan Neuhaus, from The University of Adelaide, says.
“There’s also augmented reality, where you make cancer margins visible in theatre so that you no longer have to wait for pathology to know whether you got it all out.”
For Neuhaus, assisted decision-making is the holy grail of AI.
“The idea that you could use AI with pattern recognition to search millions of databases, studies and textbooks to pull out every case of variability in a way I never could is fantastic. Will it happen in my time? I’m not sure, but I can certainly see it coming.”
RISKS & DOUBTS
DESPITE the allure of speedy healthcare, doubts about AI remain. Do we really want to put our lives in the hands of something that’s only one small glitch away from failure? And can AI deal with the differences in how diseases are diagnosed and treated around the world?
Walsh has his concerns about tech giants procuring and owning our medical data, and poorer people missing out on AI access, but says such bumps in the road are to be expected early on.
“If we look back at the industrial revolution, we endured 50 years of pain before we got adequate systems in place to deal with the new pace of life, and now
we can’t imagine the world any other way,” he says.
“I suspect that in 100 years we’ll look back at 2018 and marvel at how primitive we were.” His conclusion?
“The positives almost certainly outweigh the negatives of AI.”
Neuhaus is similarly optimistic, but warns that our greatest challenge may lie not in ironing out kinks to overcome current limitations, but in accepting that humans should have limitations.
“Obviously AI is great - we have the ability to have artificial limbs attached and we can implant devices to help people walk again. These are fantastic inventions,” she says.
“But at what point do we accept that from the moment we each arrive on this planet, we’re destined to die? Humans are good at skirting the issue but when all is said and done, it’s the one truth that can’t be ignored.”
ROBOTS IN HEALTH CARE
Tech is already saving lives around the world. Here’s a snapshot:
Created by IBM to aid diagnosis and management plans for cancer patients.
The Icon Group in Australia announced a planned deal with IBM in June 2017
Used for a variety of surgical procedures in which surgeon’s hand movements are robotically recreated. Available in Australia and around the world.
This cute robotic seal has been used for 15 years in hospitals and aged-care homes worldwide to reduce stress and improve socialisation.
A surgical robot that can independently suture soft tissue (with surgeon supervision). It’s only used at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington for now.
This chatbot app checks in daily to help users monitor their mental health. Free to download from the App Store.
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