The computer will see you now

A growing body of research shows that AI is capable of performing at a similar level to a doctor across a range of diagnostic tasks. Our new report explores if is this just hype.

In Confronting Doctor Robot we look at what artificial intelligence might mean for our experience of healthcare. Artificial Intelligence could become part of the front door to healthcare. It could make the health system simpler, more accessible, more responsive, more sustainable, and put patients more in control. But there’s a risk that the public could experience it more as a barrier than an open door, blocking access to care, offering opaque advice and dehumanising healthcare in every sense.

We’re now at a crucial moment when decisions are being made which will determine whether the technology develops into 'People Powered AI'.

Machines are getting smarter, and doing so quickly. They can beat humans at complex games, drive cars, and, when presented with the right data, make an accurate clinical diagnosis. Machines can successfully accomplish tasks that, only a few years ago, were the exclusive domain of human beings.

This Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems likely to be a transformative technology in general, but could be particularly significant in healthcare, which is rich in the data on which AI thrives, and the types of problems that it is able to tackle.

AI-driven healthcare has made some impressive technical achievements.

A growing body of research shows that AI is capable of performing at a similar level to a doctor across a range of diagnostic tasks

There are already commercially available AI products which have a conversation with a patient and put forward a tentative diagnosis, such as Babylon, and recommend cancer treatments to patients, such as IBM Watson.

This success has lead to a degree of hype, including the suggestion that AI will rapidly come to replace doctors. In fact there remain significant constraints on what the current generation of AI can do, a lack of evidence to back up some of the claims made for AI technologies, and significant issues of accountability and trust to be overcome.

But replacing doctors is not the only way AI could be significant in health

An easier route for AI is to provide solutions where few exist, such as advice before we see a doctor, predictive and real-time analytics of health data, or a digital second opinion. AI could also pick up a significant amount of ‘lower value’ tasks, supporting existing clinical work.

These new capabilities, despite being less headline grabbing than robot doctors, could really help. For example, they could transform access to care by being providing 24/7 advice and triage, and relieving pressure on an overstretched health system.

However, this does require putting AI in a very influential position. AI could change patients’ experience of care: how care is accessed, the way services are organised, and the relationship between citizen and clinician. Done poorly, this could make healthcare inhuman inaccessible and ineffective.

If the pace of development of AI continues, and given the amount money being invested in it, and the ‘burning platform’ of an overstretched health service AI could become commonplace in as little five years. As the legal, regulatory and commercial rules that govern AI are being set, we have a window of opportunity to ensure that patients are placed at the centre of the process, and that AI delivers the right outcomes for them.

John Loder will be leading a session at The Future of People Powered Health on 2 May 2018. Watch the live stream.


John Loder

John Loder

John Loder

Investment Director - Health Sector, Impact Investments

John is an investment director in Nesta’s Impact Investments team, leading our work to back ventures that align with the healthy life mission.

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