The UK government announced its ambition to make the UK a world leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data technologies in its 2017 Industrial Strategy with a £300m investment towards AI research also promised. In addition to major tech companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM, there are a number of AI start-ups working on opportunities.
AI is being used or trialled for a range of healthcare and research projects including: detection of diseases, management of chronic conditions, delivery of health services and drug discovery. Management consultants, Accenture₁ have forecasted that AI applications could save the US healthcare $150bn by 2026. Similarly, an Institute for Public Policy Research₂ report maintained that with widespread adoption of AI, the NHS could save as much as £12.5bn a year worth of staff time that could be better deployed interacting with patients. AI in health represents a collection of multiple technologies enabling machines to sense, comprehend, act and learn, so they can perform administrative and clinical healthcare functions according to Accenture. AI-based systems, include machine-learning algorithms, could be used to make more accurate diagnoses of diseases such as pneumonia, breast and skin cancers, eye diseases and heart conditions. Machines could take over a wide range of tasks currently undertaken by healthcare professionals from doctors and nurses to healthcare assistants and administrative staff. Robots could help patients eat their meals, diagnose serious illnesses, conduct surgery and help recovery. Certainly, robotics has the potential to perform surgery with great precision and at greater speed as has been evidenced in the case of hair transplantation surgery. In addition, researchers have developed an AI robot designed to make the discovery of drug discovery faster and more economical.
The use of AI does raise a number of ethical and social issues, and cannot fully replace the expertise, intuition and human insight of medics. However, the potential is difficult to ignore. Indeed, there are several innovative AI-based technologies already in use by the NHS to help physicians diagnose coronary heart disease and reduce unnecessary invasive tests. AI is also increasing the speed and reliability of some cancer diagnosis. A recent poll released by Reaction Data₃ of radiology professionals also showed that AI is considered to be important or extremely important for the future in their field of work. It can also assist in providing predictive analysis of data which will increasingly be collected with more patients and users willing to provide data from wearable devices.
It’s extremely unlikely that an AI-empowered NHS will lead to significant job losses as has been suggested in some quarters. In reality, it will enable better outcomes for patients and advances in diagnosis but the need for human care, compassion, empathy and touch will remain.
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