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AI health care innovation: Coming to an operating room near you

Traditional computer coding has built virtually every aspect of the modern world—but because the goal is to teach computers how to solve problems, it’s constrained by the limits of a coder’s own skill and imagination. On the other hand, AI coding is about teaching computers problems, and allowing solutions to arise from simple, roughly evolutionary processes. This shift has allowed AI to surge forward, and has become probably the key health care innovation of the past several decades.

The impact of this sort of alien computer insight is just now starting to be felt. From online diagnosis to early robotic surgery, health care AI is already allowing incredible gains in health care efficiency and safety. At the same time, health care is becoming a more demanding market by the day. Continuing to advance health care in this scenario will require even greater gains for AI than we’ve seen yet.

Health care is sick, and AI could be the cure

For a long time now, health care has been getting less affordable, a problem Forbes claims can only be fixed with “systemic” solutions. Partly, the problem arises from rising rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes, partly from falling rates of company-sponsored health care packages, and partly from the ever-increasing lifespans of first-world citizens. This problem seems intractable: As health improves, the cost of improving health increases. But AI is built to smash through those sorts of barriers.

AI solutions are already assisting doctors (or taking over for them entirely) in a wide range of specific diagnoses like pneumonia and heart attacks. Meanwhile, AI-driven robots have already begun to work their way into the operating room, improving on human-level safety while allowing paid surgeons to focus on more difficult tasks. These are the sorts of labour-saving innovations that could revolutionize health care—much in the same way that technology previously revolutionized manufacturing. It could allow the industrialization not of medicine alone, but of care itself.

How to assist (and exploit) the AI revolution

As in all things, it will almost certainly fall to the IT department to make the high-level aspirations of executives actually come true. Sure, management needs to keep eyes on such large-scale strategic ideas, but it’s the ITDMs who often end up having to push for these cutting-edge AI solutions. It ultimately comes down to ignorance of the technology itself, and IT workers will often have to take the unfamiliar step of pitching an AI tech based mostly on its ability to affect the bottom line.

Still, spending decisions get made at the highest levels, and it’s ultimately IT’s job to implement those decisions. That means the same thing in the context of AI as anywhere else: security. Human surgeons are, of course, not hackable—their performance and discretion aren’t affected by the ongoing arms race between hackers and security researchers, while AI surgeons very well could be. Even a small number of damaging stories in the media could tank much of AI’s momentum, branding them not as a cost-reducing new health care innovation, but as a digital spy privy to the public’s most sensitive personal information.

AI-driven change has only just begun

What’s striking about the heath care AI technologies in development right now isn’t so much the depth of any one ability, but the breadth of the field as a whole. In many cases, there’s nothing inherently harder about diagnosing one disease versus another, but each process takes time and effort to teach. The potential of AI in health care will only be truly realized when many different AIs can collectively perform the majority of lower-level tasks that are currently given to new med-school graduates. At that point, it’s just a matter of collecting these relatively simple insights into one cohesive, self-administrating package.

This could end up being the end-stage role of human doctors and surgeons—to intelligently direct and deploy an array of AI-based solutions, and sift their responses. It can only happen, however, if the roll-out continues in a safe, secure manner that doesn’t cause a backlash in public opinion. That responsibility falls to the tech workers of the world, both in and outside of health care itself.