Some of the biggest changes in society are those that come upon us surreptitiously. Climate change is one of them; artificial intelligence (AI) is another. Long seen as the stuff of sci-fi movies such as Her (wherein a man falls in love with his sensitive, playful virtual assistant, Samantha), robots (a form of AI) are already performing many of the tasks we take for granted. It’s not humans who decide if you’re eligible for a bank loan – it’s AI.
AI also writes a lot of the content you may be reading online, decides which adverts pop up on your social media, answers your written queries on company websites and, cheekily, runs little tests to ascertain whether or not we’re human (‘How many tractors do you see? Five? OK, you’re human.’)
The term ‘artificial intelligence’ was coined during the mid-20th century by John McCarthy, a computer scientist, but the earliest work in this field was done by a logician and computer pioneer from Britain, Alan Turning. In 1935, he envisioned a computing machine with unlimited memory, and in 1950s foresaw a machine that could learn from experience and adapt its own instructions. AI is therefore not a new trend in the computing world.
IBM® became known internationally as a computer company after the release of its personal computer (IBM 5150) in 1981. The company has since diversified into many different fields of technology, especially with their Watson project. IBM® Watson focuses on AI to create systems to help organisations, governments and commercial entities to simplify and streamline their own procedures and systems.
IBM® Watson Health® specialises in two fields – life science and health. Producing new medicine for the market is expensive and can cost between USD1 billion and USD2 billion per product.
Hindrances during clinical trials, data issues and protocol restrictions can easily derail these clinical projects. IBM wants to assist this sector to develop, produce and provide new medicine at a faster rate and in a more cost-effective way.
Some AI programmes have the capacity to engage in expert tasks including medical diagnoses, voice recognition and more. Some advanced information processing software aspires to create smart systems, such as specialised medical diagnoses and commercially desirable stock trading strategies.
The purpose of these developments by IBM® Watson Health® is to help the helpers who provide healthcare and health services to their clients; in other words, you and me.
Imagine some of the possibilities of these new developments. You could be sitting on your couch while watching a movie on Netflix and use something similar to a blood pressure-measuring instrument to gather your vital statistics.
Combine this with a finger-prick device, similar to a glucometer used by diabetics, to draw a drop of blood from your finger which you put on a special stick, which communicates with your computer network; within minutes your blood sample is analysed and a few minutes later you receive a full medical diagnosis. If a virus (such as a flu virus) is detected in your system, the information can be sent to your doctor who prescribes the medication you need immediately.
The prescription is then sent to a pharmacy which delivers the meds to your door – all from the comfort of your own home. No humans involved, other than you and, at this stage, your doctor who can be anywhere in the world.
Imagine how helpful such a system could be for the elderly whose movements are often restricted. Older people often sell their cars when they lose the ability to safely navigate through traffic or because their reflexes aren’t as sharp as they used to be.
A medical diagnosis can be made from their home or retirement home with the assistance of an in-house nurse. No more need to make arrangements with family members to take them to a doctor’s appointment. One wonders, of course, about the long term-effects of all this sidestepping of human involvement.
Limitations do apply. Doctors have financial obligations, whether it be paying rent for their offices, buying or upgrading medical equipment or their staff payroll.
There is a fear that clinicians, medical workers and other professionals might become redundant because of constantly improving AI systems.
The reality is that we, as human beings, are social beings; we need to talk and interact with others. Furthermore, when it comes to our medical matters, they’re not so straightforward; there are many medical things we simply prefer to talk through with a knowledgeable human.
The question remains: Can new approaches and AI technology improve patient care, or not? The ideal will always be to provide the right care at the right time for patients who are in need of medical assistance – and maybe, just maybe, IBM® Watson Health® is on the right track to realise this dream.