AI pushes medical frontiers but it's no replacement for doctors

In the 19th century, the first wave of automation resulted in the faster assembly of products than workers were capable of. The next wave saw the advent of machines that were superior at organising things.

In the current world of data analytics, pattern recognition using cognitive computers far surpasses human capability.

The advent of new technology has invariably led to the destruction of old jobs and the creation of new ones ("Dealing with AI and job displacement"; May 2).

Even more portentous for workers, powerful new technologies are increasingly being adopted not only in mundane and repetitive tasks, but also in professions such as finance, education and even medicine ("Singapore eyes a slice of the AI pie"; April 20).

The free flow of healthcare information on the Internet has allowed patients to be more informed about their health.

When we examine the remarkable advances in technology in recent years, the future of medicine is particularly exciting.

At certain hospitals, artificial intelligence now plays a part in prescriptions by calculating drug doses or combinations enumerated to be unsafe for a patient.

The increasing precision of surgical robots is well documented. Such advances protect against human error and issue warnings based on recognising certain patterns.

AI is pushing computing into the realm of medicine, where super smart technology may help doctors diagnose diseases, assess patients, and prescribe treatment plans and medication.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to this during his speech at last year's National Delegates' Conference of the National Trades Union Congress, when he touched on how some computer AI programs, with their enormous databases, can now be as good as doctors at making a medical diagnosis.

Some AI researchers have even postulated that automation, in terms of algorithms, may replace up to 80 per cent of doctors because big data, combined with computational strength, is more accurate and objective than the average human physician.

Cognitive computing uses AI techniques, such as advanced language processing and analytics, combined with great amounts of data drawn from medical textbooks and journals, besides information collated from specialists and hospitals.

However, besides offering doctors a second opinion, AI should not replace physicians in making the final decision concerning patients' course of treatment or medication.

The years of training and experience gained from treating patients give doctors the ability to make decisions borne of innate and conscious reasoning, which makes medicine both an art as well as a science.

Jeffrey Chew Teck Hock (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'AI pushes medical frontiers but it's no replacement for doctors'. Print Edition | Subscribe