Next AI ‘wave’ will be a sea change for health care

The artificial intelligence (AI) journey from theory to mainstream has evolved in waves. While health care may see AI as an abstract concept, I believe that technology capabilities have already entered their second wave of evolution.

The roots of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies go back to 1950, when Alan Turing suggested that machines could be designed to think. Current applications of AI would likely be as unrecognizable to Turing as today’s physics classes would be to Sir Isaac Newton.

Perhaps Turing would still recognize the Wave zero technology principles that allowed a computer to beat reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. That feat involved a lot of heavy engineering to build a system of logical rules, wherein the machine relied primarily on a programmed understanding of the game of chess.

Wave one brought natural language processing (NLP) and other examples of machine learning, allowing scientists to train computer systems to adapt to different situations. Its seminal moment came in 2011 when a supercomputer beat two human opponents on a well-known trivia game show. That accomplishment required the machine to reason vs. working within a structure of predefined rules. Today, NLP is one of the more common applications of AI in health care that can improve the accuracy of reimbursement and quality of care.

Now we’re in the middle of Wave two. I see it as the “spring of AI.” Thanks to a big boost in computational power over the past few years, machines can now recognize objects and translate speech in real time. Back propagation allows neural networks to work much faster and solve problems they couldn’t in the past, processing data dramatically faster. Wave two has also brought a deeper appreciation of the potential of human-machine collaboration. Although a computer once beat Kasparov at chess, a new style of play called Freestyle has emerged. It pairs computers and humans for a combination hard to beat by a computer alone or a human alone.

So, what’s next? Despite the hype about machines taking over human jobs, we’re much more likely to see cases where machines enhance human decision making or activities. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maurice Conti, an AI visionary and chief innovation officer at Telefonica’s Alpha, Europe’s first “moonshot” factory. He explained how technology is boosting human capabilities and “not just doing its own thing.”

Maurice believes that applications of AI will advance higher quality care without increasing costs through developments in telemedicine and decision support software. He thinks practical uses of AI will allow health care professionals to practice at the top of their license and spend more time in direct patient care.

Practical applications of AI that keep people healthy and simplify administrative tasks are particularly exciting. Augmented by technology, I’m confident that health care professionals will continue to move from intervention to prevention, leading to a sea change in health care.


About the Author:

Kerrie Holley, technical fellow at Optum, focuses on applying leading-edge technology — like AI, IoT, genomics and blockchain — to solve some of health care’s biggest challenges. For more than 30 years, he has contributed significantly to the technology landscape and is putting his skills to work to help people live healthier lives and make health care work better for everyone.


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