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Is the overuse of the term“Bots” and “AI” damaging our cause?

In the latest blog post by NHS commentator Roy Lilley, he reflects on how we talk about AI, machine learning and bots in health IT. 


In the latest blog post by NHS commentator Roy Lilley, he reflects on how we talk about AI, machine learning and bots in health IT. 

As I write this, the TV is telling me that over 45,000 new cases of Covid have been diagnosed in the UK. Also, 32,000 people have been fined for breaking Covid regulations.

I’m reminded of  John Malkovich:

People get up, they go to work, they have their lives, but you’ll never see the headlines say, ‘Six billion people got along rather well today.’ You’ll have the headline about the 30 people who shot each other.

In England there are over 57 million people who are virus-free, have obeyed the rules, stayed home, worn a mask and got on with their lives as best as they could.  They’re the ones who are saving the nation, making sacrifices and are the heroes… alas, we are very unlikely to hear about them.

Headlines are twice the size of events.

Here’s an example, it had me pressing Command-0 to get it centre screen:

Kettering Hospital builds ‘Mary Bot’ to automate Covid reporting.

Blimey!  I had visions of the wheelie-thing I saw in the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi that autonomously delivered fresh bed-linen to the wards or the Australian Hospital where I saw the robot’s cousin delivering meals.

I thought of a humanoid creature, humming along a corridor with a clip-board, counting beds and people. No such luck.

The Mary Bot is a clever piece of technology that automatically gathers information from various sources –  bed availability, oxygen use, staffing and what-not, which normally takes somebody a laborious amount of time to collect and collate. It turns this into data. A dashboard. A what’s-happening page.

It’s smart. It’s not rocket science. It’s useful. It’s not game-changing and it is certainly not a ‘Bot’. It’s probably a high-end macro, the sort of thing you can do on your laptop to make repetitive tasks go away.

Mary-Bot saves time and has probably ousted someone with a biro and a spreadsheet to work with a stethoscope and a thermometer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Mary-Bot. But it is the sort of tech we should have been using for the last five years. It is the sort of thing University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust has been doing. They call it their Robotic Process Automation.  Internally designed to enable rapid expansion of their own C-19 screening and antibody testing, they shared the solution with peers across the country and seven London hospitals have adopted the live C-19 Analytics that they built to support their Command Centre, at no cost.

The NHS is full of high-volume, repetitive processes, where there is no interoperability but with clever interface-programming, they can scoop-up information and get a job done that might otherwise take ages, or worse, not be done at all.

What’s my beef? ‘Robots’. I have the same problem with ‘Artificial Intelligence’. It doesn’t exist and won’t for another 20 years…what we have is machine learning.

There is a gulf between frontline healthcare workers and the IT brigade.  The more they use words like robot and artificial intelligence, the wider the gap grows.

The job is to bring the management of information, by the use of technology, closer to where it is needed.  As simple and easy to use as Twitter or FaceBook.

The headline I’m looking for: ‘NHS uses basic technology to do boring stuff’.

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