Finally, the Age of the Better Bot

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Like virtual reality, chat bots have existed for years, but we’re finally seeing the level of execution that can truly transport the user, with new potential applications in health care.

By Logan Plaster

I recently had an email exchange with a colleague in which we decided to have a follow-up conference call. To schedule the meeting, my friend copied her personal assistant and asked that she fix a time for our next chat. The obliging assistant, Amy Ingram, followed up almost instantly and smoothly set up a time that worked. There was a cancellation, a re-scheduling, a flurry of apologies, but we found a time, thanks to Amy’s good-tempered persistence. It wasn’t until we had gone back and forth multiple times that I read Amy’s email signature and realized the significance of “her” initials. It turned out that Amy Ingram (A.I.) was a sophisticated chat bot and that I had been pleasantly corresponding with a robot the entire time. I was floored. The email exchanges had been clear and cordial with nary a hiccup in our conversation.

Apparently I wasn’t the first to be fooled. ”She has received flowers, chocolate, and whiskey at the office,” said Amy Ingram’s creator, Dennis Mortensen, in an interview with Business Insider, “and she just might have been flirted with a few times.” The beauty, says Mortensen, is that you don’t have to use any special syntax or vocabulary to communicate with Amy. She pulls the data she needs from your normal communication, and she gets the job done.

As Rishi Madhok writes, gone are the days when a “chat bot” means calling up Moviefone or using “Clippy” in Microsoft Office. Even Siri seems gimicky compared to savvy Ms. Ingram, whose version of automated response is deceptively smart, nearly invisible and miles away from the uncanny valley.

What does this have to do with healthcare? In my interview with Ron Gutman, the CEO and founder of HealthTap alludes to a new development that will put artificial intelligence front and center. HealthTap will leverage 5 billion healthcare questions answered on the platform to deliver health answers personalized to the patient. As Gutman puts it, it’s all about putting “content in context”. And HealthTap isn’t alone. There’s the AI-driven health assistant by “Your.MD,” Chinese search engine giant Baidu’s medical chatbot named Melody, not to mention offerings by Ns1ghter and Babylon Health.

If the intuitiveness of my exchange with “Amy Ingram” is a sign of things to come, count me optimistic about the future of chat bot-powered personalized medicine. Imagine an insurance chat bot for when you call to authorize medications, says Telemedicine editor Nicholas Genes. “The bot could automatically collect my patient’s information from the EHR, and would already know my credentials.”

But while answers to health questions and medication authorization are great, there’s an even bigger upside on the horizon. Today’s emergency medicine residents spend nearly half of each shift inputting data into a computer. If healthcare chat bots and A.I. can move from being gimmicky and obtrusive to seamless and truly intuitive, they have the ability to pull physicians away from those electronic charts and back to the bedside. Then they can get back to the job that humans do best – like holding the hand of a worried patient, looking them in the eyes and telling them everything’s going to be OK.

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