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August 28, 2017      

Doctors are already using artificial intelligence to help mine medical data, make diagnoses, and design treatment plans. Healthcare AI could soon assist with patient interactions, but this has implications for public policy and business models.

Even before it becomes commonplace, healthcare AI’s acceptance reflects social divisions. In the U.K., men are more comfortable than women regarding talking to a robot for getting medical assistance, found a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey.

AI and robotics promise to address shortages of skilled workers in healthcare and other industries. How comfortable will physicians, nurses, and patients be interacting with automated systems? Will this lead to greater efficiency, privacy, and time for human care?

We’ll be discussing whether your business is ready for robotics and AI at this year’s RoboBusiness conference. In the meantime, here are some examples of where healthcare AI is developing.

Business Takeaways:

  • Healthcare AI could soon expand from analyzing big data to initial interactions with patients.
  • Along with other forms of medical robotics and automation, AI will challenge existing professional roles.
  • Robotics and AI can address healthcare worker shortages, but there is debate over which areas still need a human touch.

The AI doctor is in

Instead of talking to a human healthcare professional about a cold or a rash, you could soon be consulting AI. IBM is already experimenting with it.

Imagine taking a picture of a skin condition with your smartphone and sending it to a system powered by IBM Watson. The AI would compare it with millions of similar pictures as well as other variables to determine whether the site is cancerous. By the time you reach your doctor, he or she would have the same image, melanoma diagnosis, and more.

Companies all over the world are joining IBM in looking for useful and lucrative applications of healthcare AI.

U.K.-based startup Babylon Health recently raised $60 million. It puts AI-driven medical advice in your pocket.

Public policy officials should be pleased that such advances could reduce the number of visits to medical facilities and thus costs. However, giving consumers the ability to get quick diagnoses would redefine the role of doctors. How much should people be directly involved in healthcare?

Predictive healthcare AI

Do you post pictures on Instagram? AI can already scan them and predict — with nearly 70% accuracy — if you are likely to suffer from depression.

Or, by looking at the images of your heart, algorithms can predict — with almost 72.8% accuracy — your chances of having a heart attack.

Healthcare AI has multiple applications

When it comes to detecting breast cancer, AI is already pushing the bounds. It can predict with nearly 99.5% accuracy if cancer exists.

Such predictive maintenance could shift the focus of healthcare from treating illness to preventing it. This would change how various services are designed, funded, and offered.

Doctors will need to learn to coexist with robots, as well as find new areas where human interaction should be primary. As we’ve seen with electronic medical records in the U.S., a change in culture can be slow and complicated.

New regulations will need to include healthcare AI in rules governing patient-doctor consultations. Can or should AI be trusted?

Managing the elderly

Many countries in the developed world are facing the demographic stresses of an aging population. Take, for instance, Canada.

According to population data collected in 2016, there are more seniors (5.9 million) than children under 14 (5.8 million). By 2061, this number could reach 12 million seniors versus 8 million children.

Seniors want to be independent as long as possible, but many must live with their families or in nursing homes. Robots could help extend this independence and make it easier for a few caregivers to look after multiple people.

AI can help remind patients to take pills or be physically and socially active, and robots can aid in mobility.

In Australia, people suffering from dementia are using PARO Seal to de-stress and relax. Similarly, MiRo in the U.K. is a robotic “pet” that responds to human gestures. Both devices are aimed at the elder-care market.

Robots can truly listen to patients

Here is another fascinating scenario: AI can listen to spoken words and detect abnormalities or diseases that the human ear cannot. Would you put such a voice-recognition system in front of elderly parents?

Social robots and sensor-based solutions for aiding the elderly raise privacy and liability concerns. Issues of safety, intimacy, and risk — to both the patients and the robots — will require new legislation.

And this is just the beginning. Surgical robots and precision medicine could soon be joined by automated hospitals, 3D-printed organs, and nano devices. Exoskeletons are just starting to help the disabled, and healthcare AI could be a powerful tool in psychiatric treatment. The overtaxed healthcare system may experience unprecedented efficiencies, scale, and reduced costs.

More on Healthcare AI and Robotics:

Reward and risk

Of course, with benefits come risks. Cloud-based data could be stolen or misused, hackers have already demonstrated the vulnerability of some surgical robots, and healthcare AI is only as ethical as the human training of machine learning systems.

If we cede authority for diagnoses and treatment to AI, as with having self-driving cars make certain decisions, we’ll have to accept the consequences. Who is responsible when things go wrong, however rarely, and might there be a backlash from healthcare professionals and consumers?

“Public-policy officials should start visiting the various robotics conferences in their home countries and overseas,” said Maarten Steinbuch, a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology as well as CEO of Medical Robotic Technologies BV in the Netherlands. “They need to become familiar with what is taking place and what is coming. They need to see the advancements firsthand as well as learn about the limitations.”

Editor’s Note: Aseem Prakash will be speaking about “Separating Hype From Reality — Selling Upward and Setting Expectations” at our Chief Robotics Officer Summit and “Is Your Business Ready for Robotics and AI?” at RoboBusiness 2017 next month.