Artificially Intelligent Doctors

by Professor @andymiah

Last week, the company Babylon health was in the news again within the British Medical Journal (20 Jan, 2018), this time in the context of an article about how NHS England seeks to relocate 30% of its 111 callers into mobile/app environments. The implications of this for healthcare more broadly are great, but it strikes me as entirely understandable that today’s patient population are more comfortable chatting through text than they are calling somebody on the phone.

Over the last decade, we have become a population that spends more time writing than ever before, albeit within the confines of instant messaging and social media. It is reassuring that the NHS sees its role as needing to respond to this behavioural change in how people seek and interact with information, but the key thing that you need to know about Babylon Healthcare is that your interactions through its mobile interface begin by you having a conversation with a robot.

When you open the mobile interface, you are invited to begin explaining your condition in textual form, which starts the chat. You’ll then find yourself rapidly into a conversation with, well, nobody - with an operating system. After some initial enquiries, the application will then advise you what to do next, which will likely be to speak with a healthcare professional where you will have a conversation by audio or video.

I would be naive to criticise this development as the literal dehumanisation of healthcare that it appears to be. For, in the same way that IBM's deep blue machine from 1997 was able to beat the grand chess master Garry Kasparov by having enriched its intelligence with learning from a handful of other Grand Masters, it is true also to say that Babylon’s operating system i benefits from the insights of hundreds of doctors and, in fact, the idealf system in which we imagine artificial intelligence taking care of us is one that delivers knowledgeable care that is the culmination of the totality of human knowledge in medicine; not one doctor, but all doctors.

Time will tell whether people feel that AI is a reasonable enhancement to medical care or whether they would prefer simply to talk to somebody and hear their voice, or feel their touch, or feel some kind of contact that reminds him that another person is present and attentive to their needs. But for now, it is likely that the new generation of digital health consumers will happily reach first for their keyboard than for their telephone, in order to benefit from medical advice and this may be explained simply by virtue of the fact that, more often than not, it is easier for us to text than to talk.

This trend seems likely to continue, as our lives become all the more complicated. As researchers, we will have to discover whether the new generation is comfortable with this or what may be lost by them building an impression of what health care entails, based on the idea that people need not be present to care for them. While such futures may seem a long way off,  they are rapidly becoming part of how we organise society and it was only recently that the NHS health Tsar appeal to the idea that artificial intelligence can save the NHS.


Photo by GotCredit

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media, University of Salford, Manchester.