The number of tech companies pursuing health care seems to have reached an all-time high: Google, Amazon, Apple, and IBM’s Watson all want to change health care using artificial intelligence. IBM has even rebranded its health offering as “Watson Health — Cognitive Healthcare Solutions.” Although technologies from these giants show great promise, the question of whether effective health care AI already exists or whether it is still a dream remains.
As a physician, I believe that in order to understand what is artificially intelligent in health care, you have to first define what it means to be intelligent in health care. Consider the Turing test, a point when a machine becomes indistinguishable from a human.
Joshua Batson, a writer for Wired magazine, has mused whether there is an alternative measurement to the Turing test, one where the machine doesn’t just seem like a person, but an intelligent person. Think of it this way: If you were to ask a random person about symptoms you experience, they’d likely reply “I have no idea. You should ask your doctor.” A bot supplying that response would certainly be indistinguishable from a human — but we expect a little more than that.
The challenge of health care AI
Health is hard, and that makes AI in health care especially hard. Interpretation, empathy, and knowledge all have unique challenges in health care AI.
To date, interpretation is where much of the technology investment has gone. Whether for touchscreen or voice recognition, natural language processing (NLP) has seen enormous investment including Amazon’s Comprehend, IBM’s Natural Language Understanding, and Google Cloud Natural Language. But even though there are plenty of health-specific interpretation challenges, interpretation challenges are really no greater in this particular sector than in other domains.
Similarly, while empathy needs to be particularly appropriate for the emotionally charged field of health care, bots are equally challenged trying to strike just the right tone for retail customer service, legal services, or childcare advice.
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