A 5G ROBOT that can measure a person’s temperature, and controls whether a face mask is being worn, speaks to an employee in Linz, Austria.     Reuters
A 5G ROBOT that can measure a person’s temperature, and controls whether a face mask is being worn, speaks to an employee in Linz, Austria. Reuters

AI personal health assistants soon a reality

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jun 12, 2020

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It is a very cold morning in June 2030 and you are reluctant to get out of your warm bed. You notice that you have a sore throat and a stuffy nose. After the alarm buzzes for the second time, you slowly get up and walk to the bathroom.

While you brush your teeth, an infra-red sensor built into a mirror automatically takes your temperature.

On your way to the kitchen to get your first cup of coffee, you receive an alert from the personal artificial intelligence (AI) health assistant on your smartphone notifying you of some abnormalities that it detected in your saliva sample via your smart toothbrush point-of-care device, and that you are running a low fever.

While you are drinking your coffee, the health assistant informs you that you tested negative for the latest variety of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, but you have tested positive for a strain of the seasonal flu.

The health assistant suggests that you take some paracetamol and use a decongestant for your stuffy nose and a throat spray with an anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic function for your sore throat. It also warns you not to use ibuprofen due to your renal impairment.

If you prefer to consult with your general practitioner (GP), a video-call time slot is available in the afternoon, in which case the results of the test and symptoms will be forwarded to the doctor.

Due to certain co-morbidities you have, you decide to consult your GP via a video call. After studying the data and discussing your symptoms, the doctor asks you to connect to your home health system to check your blood pressure and listen to your heart.

Afterwards, he prescribes some medicine for symptomatic relief. The prescription is digitally transmitted to the pharmacy, and within an hour a drone delivers the medicine to your doorstep after you received a notifying message on your smartphone.

Does this sound far-fetched? It’s not as far off as it seems. In the next decade or so, many households will have personal health assistants. And since most biomarkers present in blood and urine can be detected in a sample of saliva, these health assistants could be equipped with AI, the newest nanotechnology, molecular diagnostic and biomarker detection capabilities, to diagnose oral and systemic diseases.

To substantiate the argument that people would prefer an easy-to-use oral diagnostic test to a more invasive alternative, just consider the success of the oral thermometer to detect fever, which has replaced its predecessor, the rectal thermometer.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that the digital non-contact infra-red thermometer has replaced the oral thermometer. Covid-19 has certainly accelerated the adoption of digital technology.

Over the past few years, saliva has increasingly been used to diagnose oral and systemic diseases because it requires a less invasive procedure than drawing blood. It is often used in situations where health care staff are working with paediatric and geriatric patients, or when access to health care is limited in remote geographic areas where phlebotomists (technicians who draw blood) are unavailable.

The science around using saliva for diagnostic purposes has developed tremendously, and significant success has been achieved in the diagnosis of over a range of diseases.

As medical science and computer science become more integrated in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will enter an era where AI will play an indispensable role in the everyday health care of individuals and families.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have accelerated the digitalisation of health care.

In South Korea, it was used with great success to warn people if they get too close to a confirmed Covid-19 case.

In China, Alibaba developed an AI algorithm that can diagnose suspected Covid-19 cases within 20 seconds with 96percent accuracy.

In California, computer scientists developed systems that can remotely monitor the health of the elderly in their homes and sound an alarm if they fall ill due to Covid-19 or other illnesses.

In South Africa, several medical practitioners started to consult their patients via video conferencing. One of the large medical schemes started to offer online consultations for people who are concerned that they may be infected by the coronavirus.

Covid-19 caught most governments and health care systems by surprise. This resulted in a lack of reliable data and models, poor decision-making, slow responses, inadequately distributed personal protection equipment and medical supplies, a serious shortage of hospital beds, and insufficient medical staff in hot spots.

AI certainly made a difference - not everywhere, but in pockets of excellence, where countries were generally better prepared for a pandemic. But now data is flowing, making the use of AI and machine learning possible, thus enhancing the modelling and decision-making capabilities of healthcare officials and citizens alike.

Whether it is a personal AI health assistant or deep neural networks (a subtype of AI) to interpret medical scans, pathology slides, eye exams and colonoscopies, we will see greater use of AI in health care after Covid-19.

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist.

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