Will Computers Soon Become Better at Health Care than Humans?

Will Computers Soon be Better at Health Care than Humans?

Many dimensions of modern life are being increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, including various aspects of health and wellness. How long before a computer can outperform human-directed health-care interventions? Perhaps more importantly, how long before a human will be willing to trust a non-human to treat him or her? These two questions might become focal in the debate on the potential of machine learning technology and robotics in health care.

Computers can “think” in an increasingly human-like way. Whether we are ready or not, recent developments in cognitive computing signal that the age of computerized coaching and health care has arrived.

Statistically Analyzing Health Information

It is no secret that we are sharing all sorts of private and, often, intimate information every time we make a purchase or browse the Internet. The ability to predict health events simply by tracking casual behavior was previously poignantly demonstrated back in 2012 when the retailer Target showed the world they could predict with uncanny accuracy if a woman was pregnant based on her shopping habits — sometimes even delivering the news of pregnancy to abashed family members.  

Many personal details get statistically analyzed on a routine basis to provide more insight into one’s habits and characteristics. Some of these practices happen voluntarily and with the user’s full awareness and support, while others can be performed stealthily by organizations and companies.

Involuntarily tracking behavior raises certain ethical and social questions.

Many individuals now freely share their personal health information in various ways, through explicit sharing via a health risk assessment, casually through wearables, and sometimes even unintentionally through social media posts and buying behavior.

The accuracy with which this information can be analyzed and interpreted is increasing, creating both perils and opportunities, and possibly placing us at the frontier of a new era where technology could play a role in nudging our health and well-being in positive ways.

Personalizing Health and Solving the Problem of Misdiagnosing

Doctors’ diagnostic errors are a huge area of concern. A result of negligence or a failure to consider the abundance of options, these mistakes can be devastating for the patient and his or her family. According to Kaiser Health News, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of medical cases are misdiagnosed. Moreover, 28 percent of all diagnostic mistakes were found to be life-threatening. Misdiagnosing can include anything from prescribing the wrong medicine to surgically removing the wrong body part.

This alarming statistic might lead some to argue that the existing problem could be solved simply by removing the human factor from the equation. Technology like IBM’s Watson is now offering hope that information can be synthesized and contemplated in a more humanistic fashion.

Watson’s cognitive technology has the capacity to analyze unstructured data, understand complex questions and present end-users with evidence-based solutions. Watson is aiming to enhance predictive algorithms, which have not always proven successful when applied in real-life situations.

When IBM Watson formed a strategic partnership with CVS Health last year, this announced the arrival of cognitive computing in the commercial health-care industry. Recently, a deal with Under Armour was also inked with Watson, which will give Watson an opportunity to further build and develop its health platform. 

However, what could be more provocative than Watson’s predicting potential is the possibility of its technology outperforming humans when it comes to health and fitness interventions.

Embracing Artificial Intelligence

Last year, the Chairman of NHS England, Sir Malcolm Grant, expressed his opinion that artificial intelligence should be embraced as it could improve the quality of care and personalize medicine.

Cognitive computing in the health-care sector is now used more in an advisory role and not to make final decisions or replace humans per se. Watson, for example, helps individuals and organizations make more advanced and sophisticated clinical decisions and will soon help individuals improve their fitness levels through its partnership with Under Armour. However, it was only a short time ago that computers overtook humans as champions, and computing powers are only increasing. Furthermore, the human element is being added to computers’ processing characteristics, making the idea of computer and robots taking care of us not so far-fetched as it once seemed.

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