Michael J. Rigby
AMA Journal of Ethics
An artificially intelligent computer program can now diagnose skin cancer more accurately than a board-certified dermatologist. Better yet, the program can do it faster and more efficiently, requiring a training data set rather than a decade of expensive and labor-intensive medical education. While it might appear that it is only a matter of time before physicians are rendered obsolete by this type of technology, a closer look at the role this technology can play in the delivery of health care is warranted to appreciate its current strengths, limitations, and ethical complexities.
Artificial intelligence (AI), which includes the fields of machine learning, natural language processing, and robotics, can be applied to almost any field in medicine, and its potential contributions to biomedical research, medical education, and delivery of health care seem limitless. With its robust ability to integrate and learn from large sets of clinical data, AI can serve roles in diagnosis, clinical decision making, and personalized medicine. For example, AI-based diagnostic algorithms applied to mammograms are assisting in the detection of breast cancer, serving as a “second opinion” for radiologists. In addition, advanced virtual human avatars are capable of engaging in meaningful conversations, which has implications for the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disease. AI applications also extend into the physical realm with robotic prostheses, physical task support systems, and mobile manipulators assisting in the delivery of telemedicine.
Nonetheless, this powerful technology creates a novel set of ethical challenges that must be identified and mitigated since AI technology has tremendous capability to threaten patient preference, safety, and privacy. However, current policy and ethical guidelines for AI technology are lagging behind the progress AI has made in the health care field. While some efforts to engage in these ethical conversations have emerged, the medical community remains ill informed of the ethical complexities that budding AI technology can introduce. Accordingly, a rich discussion awaits that would greatly benefit from physician input, as physicians will likely be interfacing with AI in their daily practice in the near future.