Paging Dr. Robot: AI moves into health care
The next time you get sick, your care may involve a form of the technology people use to navigate road trips or pick the right vacuum cleaner online.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is spreading into health care, often as software or a computer program capable of learning from large amounts of data and making predictions to guide care or help patients.
It already detects an eye disease tied to diabetes and does other behind-the-scenes work like helping doctors interpret MRI scans and other imaging tests for 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 (USC) 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.
But they say there are 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 USC research professor Albert Rizzo.
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 a 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 its 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.
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