More Human Than Human? Not Quite

Science fiction and medicine meet in artificial intelligence.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jason Henninger is the managing editor and product manager at MedLearn Media.

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction. To be more honest, I’m a Doctor Who-quoting, RPG-playing, convention-attending, comic-book-loving Trekkie geek. Two things you can assume about people like me. First, the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) holds an endless fascination. Second, we ate lunch alone in high school.

Despite how common artificial intelligence has become, AI still sounds like science fiction. But unlike visions of driods and sonic screwdrivers, AI has numerous practical applications that already affect us daily. This is increasingly true of AI’s role in medicine.

To understand the value of AI, it’s important to determine what it is and what it isn’t. It is not a “thinking machine” in the sense of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are no closer to a truly independent and self-aware artificial consciousness than we have ever been (though we’ve gotten a lot better at imitating it). AI in real life is more accurately an umbrella term for several data-processing disciplines (that’s data with a small d, not the guy from Star Trek) including natural language processing and algorithms—sifting through, organizing, and predicting outcomes—known collectively as machine learning. However much something like Siri may simulate real person, the fact is such characters are an amalgamation of language processing, search engine functions, and text-to-voice technology, all of which is ultimately mathematics, not consciousness.

There’s literally no aspect of medicine that does not involve data, consequently, no avenue of medicine that cannot be assisted by AI. On the logistics, billing and compliance side, AI is already at play.  Predictive models for keeping tabs on medical supplies and reordering them use data analysis and may combat shortages.

Coding software has been around for a while, and though the consensus among coders is that to rely solely on software suggestions is cruisin’ for a bruisin’ audit-wise, there’s no reason to think this will always be the case. In the recent 500th episode of Talk Ten Tuesday, host Chuck Buck asked his guest Dr. James Kennedy if AI will someday replace clinical documentation integrity specialists. Dr. Kennedy replied vehemently that it wouldn’t. “Absolutely not, in the same way that the encoder has not replaced the coder,” he answered. That said, he sees AI as a great potential tool in documentation, noting, “How we bridge the gap between physicians and coders will require technology.”

Regarding the application of AI in medical practice, what is diagnosis if not data analysis? Combining computers that are more powerful than ever with miniaturization technology results in implantable AI devices creating data the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Currently, exciting advances in diabetes care include data-driven devices with constant monitoring of blood glucose levels that could, ideally, administer insulin as required. In cardiology, AI has entered the world of pacemakers that will come with built-in defibrillators or that measure neural biomarkers and the function of other organs. Each comes with the possibility of real-time data available to medical staff.

The potential of AI goes beyond single-device applications. Just as an online search for certain products might lead to algorithms picking up on other products you might want—say, a search for a lightsaber-shaped chopsticks on Google resulting in suggestions for Millennium Falcon cookie cutters on Amazon—it’s not out of the realm of possibility for one of the glucose monitors and a pacemaker mentioned earlier to share data to detect, and better still, predict, heart attacks, strokes, and early signs of organ failure. Throw in communication from a virtual physician, informed by natural language processing, and you have a sort of instant cardiologist or endocrinologist who tells you when something is wrong without an actual doctor’s visit.

None of this tech will ever completely replace the human element in medicine, for the same reason that AI is not true consciousness. But it can be a great tool for gathering and analyzing lifesaving information. As much as I love the holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, we will always need actual human beings, assisted by AI, in order to live long and prosper.

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Jason Henninger

Jason Henninger is the managing editor of MedLearn Media. In nearly twenty years as a writer and editor, he has worked for Advance Local, the Los Angeles Times, Macmillan, and World Tribune Press.

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