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What is artificial intelligence and what does it mean for nurses?

Lesley Jones
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The easiest way to describe artificial intelligence (AI) is to call it the intelligence of machines, rather than people. 

The machine works out a solution from the data collected from a series of patterns or algorithms.

AI – sometimes called machine intelligence – appears to be gaining momentum and is a term now used for a collection of technologies and applications, such as scan interpretation and laboratory results reading.

In the world of technology, this concept seems like a shiny, new thing. It has, however, been with us in healthcare for some time. The main functions of AI in healthcare are in learning situations, planning simulations, problem-solving and even speech recognition. AI is already here. It is not a thing for the future – it all around us.

AI could be thought of as technology that thinks. In healthcare we use it to scan patients and gather information to synthesise in different ways and learn from.

As with many fields of technology, the world of AI has its own language, which can make people feel excluded and possibly even lead them to think of AI as scary or a step too far. These fears may be associated with terms such as ’augmented intelligence’ or ‘reality. This is the world that robotics are widely used in.

Augmented intelligence is a softer term. It generally means that the technology works with human intelligence and does not replace it. In other words, if a patient is scanned, the technology may go to a solution. However, a trained individual will check if it is a feasible solution or diagnosis.

Nurses need to understand how this technology can best help our patients and the public improve their health in the future.

“This is definitely a space to watch”

In healthcare, AI is increasingly being used in the world of early cancer diagnosis – for example, for X-ray interpretation with lung cancer. This is definitely a space to watch. Just because something sounds like it fits better within the world of sci-fi, rather than in the real world, doesn’t mean that it can be ignored.

I always think about the computers that have been taught to play chess, which is a large-scale problem-solving game. In healthcare, we have complex problems and need to involve all of our intelligence to inform solutions the best we can.

Understanding AI and how it can help is essential.

This series of blogs has been co-produced with help from trust staff looking at and introducing systems: Arran Rogers, Royal Berkshire NHS FT; Jane Benfield Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust; Sam Neville, Basildon and Thurrock NHS Trust; and Dr Natasha Phillips, University College London.

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