Paging Dr Google: AI set to dominate medical field


Human doctors are likely to become redundant in the near future, two Kiwi health experts warn.

As technology advances, artificial intelligence (AI) could be the future of healthcare -- in the long-term, it's cheaper than regular doctors and it lessens the chance of human error.

Dr William Diprose and Dr Nicholas Buist say the progress of AI in other industries means instead of automation just being laborious tasks such as manufacturing, it can target cognitive tasks such as decision making.

And that could lead towards doctors becoming obsolete.

The warning comes not just as technology continues to advance, but as people turn more frequently to the internet for their health woes rather than their GP.

And it's no wonder people are consulting with Dr Google -- Dr Diprose and Dr Buist say a diagnosis is "ultimately a pattern-recognition algorithm".

Symptoms, signs and test results are compared with categories called diseases, before treatment is issued accordingly.

"Clearly, this process could be performed by an appropriate AI," they write in the editorial, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Instead of doctors, there would only need to be human clinicians -- they wouldn't require the years of training of regular doctors, and could be paid far less.

They would take up where the AI falls flat.

"The human clinician would only need to perform tasks that are beyond the capability of AI, such as communicating with patients, performing procedures, or making the final treatment decision in combination with the patient."

But the claim has been met with scepticism by others, including Prof Ajit Narayanan from AUT and Assoc Prof Jeremiah Deng from University of Otago.

They say humans still have one crucial advantage over the bots.

"Doctors also provide preventative advice on the basis of what they hear and see in front of them," Prof Narayanan says.

"It is currently not known how a doctor does this except to use something profoundly human that has so far escaped AI: some combination of intuition, experience and compassion."

Assoc Prof Deng agrees.

"Apart from the challenge of domain knowledge (important, but often tacit, hard to encode into computer/robots), there are at least two main obstacles for AI to overcome and be able to function on the critical profession level: creativity, and compassion. These elements are crucial in problem-solving perhaps in any domain, and in particular, medical practice."

While Dr Robert Hickson says before AI can truly rule medicine, there needs to be better information about different health populations.

"We already see limitations in the availability of genetic and physiological information that is relevant to, for example, Maori and Pacific people," says Dr Hickson.

It seems we're stuck with the GP for a while yet, until technology gets a bit more intelligent.