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It’s all in the human interpretation when it comes to AI

While AI is learning to excel at many jobs, human interaction and interpretation is going to be increasingly important too, explains Henrietta Alderman

25 Jun 2019 by Henrietta Alderman

The machines are coming. While we have been discussing the topic for years, are we ready? And what is the real and long-term significance for optometric practices, patients and AOP members?

The Foresight report, first published in March 2016, alerted us to the huge impact that technology could have on diagnosis, treatment and dispensing. But even as it was being written, it was already inevitably being superseded.

The start-up company DeepMind was founded in 2010. Its goal is to create general-purpose artificial intelligence (AI) that could be useful and effective for almost anything – from playing games to diagnosing disease. The big financial boost for the company came when it was acquired by Google in 2014 and the move into AI applications for healthcare included the collaboration between DeepMind Health and Moorfields Eye Hospital in 2016. This has shown that AI can help diagnose eye disease as accurately as experts in the field, the first time that AI has been shown to be effective in assessing 3D images.

The AOP’s clinical director, Dr Peter Hampson, is the technology lead for the AOP. He wrote a blog on AI and eye healthcare for Reform, an independent non-party thinktank whose mission is to set out ideas that will improve public service for all and deliver value for money. The blog has since been picked up within the sector and outside too. AI could be enormously helpful for NHS England, which is developing plans and initiatives to increase ophthalmology capacity in hospitals by moving eye health services into the community. Hopefully they will see the benefits of AI within the community as a way to assist optometrists in making consistently excellent clinical decisions.

“Practices need to be alert to both the changes and the needs of their patients, helping them have confidence in this new equipment”


Exciting though these developments are, and essential for the future, humans need human contact. As the creators of DeepMind Health say, “eye care professionals are always going to play a key role in deciding the type of care and treatment a patient receives” and therefore they have designed the system so that professionals can see the AI’s reasoning.

Arguably, the human interpreter of the results will in fact be more important than ever. Patients will need trusted professionals to explain what the sophisticated machines are doing.

Practices need to be alert to both the changes and the needs of their patients, helping them have confidence in this new equipment. AI generally does the job that humans used to do, but human interaction and interpretation is going to be increasingly important.

“The human voice at the end of the phone at a time of need is still important, and so we too make every effort to ensure that the right level of communication and interaction is available”


How will optometrists feel about these changes? Some will embrace them with enthusiasm and others will find themselves challenged. The AOP will be here for all of our members, whichever category they fall into. We provide information and education in many ways. The website has become the first port of call for many with its huge resource of clinical, legal, regulatory and employment advice. But the human voice at the end of the phone at a time of need is still important, and so we too make every effort to ensure that the right level of communication and interaction is available. Our newly introduced out-of-hours service, enabling members to reach a human voice through the reception phone number, is just one example of how we will keep things personal, however much the machines take over.

Image credit: Getty/ipopba

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