As we read news stories telling us about ever-growing hospital waiting lists, it is tempting to be gloomy about the prospects for healthcare. But there are in fact many areas of optimism. For example, drug discovery from the biotechnology world, which will offer personalised treatment, is finally coming within reach. Artificial intelligence too is having a hugely beneficial impact on healthcare aided and abetted by increasingly sophisticated robotics.
Take BUDDY, for example. BUDDY is a 22-inch high robot capable of moving about semi-autonomously. He chats away and is able to display various emotions such as happiness and grumpiness. He can play music or the radio and share photos. In short, BUDDY can be your companion. For the elderly who are lonely or for children, BUDDY entertains, informs, and lifts one’s spirits, which are at the heart of good health and recovery from illness.
But it’s not just with the softer skills where the latest AI is raising hopes. Take diagnostics, which represent the beginning of many people’s healthcare journey. If diagnostics are 100% accurate, then the right treatment can be applied, leading to the highest chances of recovery. Radiology, that is, the discipline of medical imaging using electromagnetic radiation, tomography, and so on, is being transformed by machine learning, perhaps the largest part of modern AI. CheXzero can now diagnose chest complaints at least as accurately as human radiologists.
Drug discovery is another area of medicine where the introduction of AI is currently showing enormous promise. Viruses such as COVID-19 use so-called spike proteins to enter human cells, rather like a key to open a door. What if the body’s immune system could be prepped to recognise the key, i.e., the spike protein, when presented and immediately destroy it? It is not just a case of recognising the chemical composition of the protein. The protein’s structure is also critical and, since proteins consist of hundreds and thousands of atoms, the variations in structure are countless. So, the trick is to figure out the structure of the COVID virus’s spike protein and then send a messenger (mRNA) into the cells of the human body to create a protein emulating the COVID virus’s spike protein. That’s where AI comes in, determining protein structures faster than humans ever can. That way, we can make antibodies that are ready for the real COVID virus when it shows up.
AI even extends to mental healthcare. Most people have heard of chatbots, especially since Microsoft released its chatbot, Tay, in 2016. Tay had to be withdrawn from Twitter in less than 24 hours, having turned into a digital monster. Nowadays, chatbots such as Replika and Kuki are much more civilised and are used by thousands as online companions. The world of therapy has caught on to this development. There are now several examples of chatbots, such as Clare, Ellie and Wysa, acting as therapists for the anxious and depressed.
AI is not just in a position to extend and accelerate healthcare provision. It will also lower healthcare costs. This will be of critical importance as societies age and as demand for healthcare rises. AI will be more than a humble assistant in providing healthcare. It may be its saviour.
By Rupert Robson, author of The sentient robot: the last two hurdles in the race to build artificial superintelligence
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