Siri, Open the Pod Bay Doors

April 14, 2017
Focusing too much on what Hal-AI can’t yet do makes it easy to overlook the accomplishments of Practical Artificial Intelligence (Siri-AI) can.

It’s fun to complain that powerful Artificial General Intelligence (Hal-AI), the kind destined to enslave us, hasn’t yet cured cancer. But, focusing too much on what Hal-AI can’t yet do makes it easy to overlook the accomplishments of what Practical Artificial Intelligence (Siri-AI) can.

For example, consider a recent article by Dr. Dave Levin, former CMIO for the Cleveland Clinic. He claims that AI currently offers little of value to healthcare, “Chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension… recognizing and treating acute conditions like sepsis, heart attacks and strokes… better prenatal care, prevention and wellness. This is where the vast burden of illness, suffering and costs lie... AI likely has little to offer here of immediate value and can divert resources and attention from these harder (and frankly less sexy) needs.

However, it is precisely in these large, “less sexy” areas where Siri-AI holds great promise. Siri-AI has the potential to improve the management of chronic disease like diabetes, prevent common problems like sepsis caused by pressure ulcers, and empower less expensive preventative care.

David Scheinker, Ph.D.

Dr. Levin explains that in its current state, powerful Hal-AI is more likely to distract from problems than help solve them. The key distinction is that Hal-AI is meant to solve complex, rare problems that humans cannot. Siri-AI is meant to perform simple, common tasks that people forget or overlook: reminding a patient to refill a prescription; measuring patient movement and reminding a nurse to turn a patient to prevent pressure ulcers; or notifying a physician to follow up with a patient who has symptoms of acute kidney injury.

My work helps me see both sides of AI. With my group SURF Stanford Medicine, I work on projects such as predicting crisis events for hospitalized children by analyzing bedside monitor waveform data with neural networks. Such projects are investments in the future of medicine, Hal-AI with limited impact in the immediate future. For operational projects at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, I partner with industry leaders to automate clinically-triggered notifications; to improve diabetes management using devices that communicate with the hospital electronic medical record; and to use biometric devices to monitor patients with chronic disease.

Hal-AI will continue contributing to advances in highly targeted treatments for complex conditions (at least until it becomes self-aware). These uses are still highly specialized, experimental, and expensive. Siri-AI has helped millions of people remember appointments, improve their sleep habits, and choose healthier food options. As healthcare providers continue to invest in Siri-AI, it can improve the preventive care and compliance that improve health, prevent hospitalizations, and reduce costs.

David Scheinker, Ph.D., is the Director of Systems Design and Collaborative Research at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University Department of Management Science and Engineering, and the Founder and Director of SURF Stanford Medicine.

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