March 2024
AI Part 2: A Visit from the iDoctors
From Dementia to Depression, AI Has the Potential to Help

The words “artificial intelligence” trigger some people because of the fear of widespread job disruptions and other dire predictions. From what I’m seeing that pessimism isn’t warranted, because AI is just not that smart yet. Nor can it do most of what people can do.

Sometimes I wish it could. My mother’s dementia diagnosis means that she has to have a regular caregiver and daily welfare checks to stay in her home. My son believes that someday robotic care-companions could be the answer. Sadly for her, that’s not an option now. Mom had a car accident in April and had to stop driving. She can no longer cook due to severe arthritis. Recently she had to be hospitalized due to a urinary-tract infection, physical weakness that left her unable to walk, and a diagnosis of “failure to thrive.”

My son told me about the 2012 film Robot & Frank, in which a robot is tasked with caring for an aging man who’d once been a bank robber. The character, played by Frank Langella, gets the robot to help him with a jewelry heist. It’s an improbable plot, I know, but it depicts a ‘friendship’ between the man and the robot that maybe won’t be so far-fetched in the future.

The potentials of AI technology are just starting to be realized, most significantly in the physical and mental health fields. Nearly every day I read of new breakthroughs. Most recently researchers found that online AI-assisted psychiatric therapy was helpful for many people when mental health was affected by post-pandemic developments and a dearth of available practitioners.

Along with curing some kinds of cancer through genetically targeted treatments, AI is leading to early detection of heart and Alzheimer’s diseases, and helping paralyzed people walk again through brain implants. It’s contributing to faster diagnoses of cancer and other diseases, and faster development of drug treatments and new vaccines. This progress will only accelerate in the coming years. What once took decades to achieve in medical research will soon take months.

Media are reporting a handful of important breakthroughs over the past year, including a genetic therapy that’s curing sickle-cell anemia and the development of an mRNA vaccine that has successfully put pancreatic cancer into remission.

Self-diagnosis and self-treatment may also grow more practical as medical devices become cheaper and easier to access. Already many over-the-counter treatments are available for conditions that weren’t available only a few years ago. Now telehealth is making medical practitioners more available to people in rural and remote locations.

A recent story in Wired magazine praised robots in development that can communicate with people who have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and ultimately help them find a sense of belonging within their despair. Quoting from the story:

“The robot-makers are a shaft of light at the bottom of the well. The gizmos they’re working on may be far in the future, but these scientists and engineers are already inventing something more important: a new attitude about dementia. They look head-on at this human experience and see creative opportunities, new ways to connect, new ways to have fun. And, of course, they have cool robots. Lots and lots of robots. With those machines, they’re trying to answer the question I’m obsessed with: What could a good life with dementia look like?”

A Stanford University research team recently built a robot with off-the-shelf parts for fairly reasonable cost and trained it to cook. That gives me hope that it will one day be available in the not-so-distant future.

Like my mother I have arthritis in my hands, and some days I just don’t feel like chopping vegetables. Instead I heat up prepared food or go out to dinner. But if I had food that needed cooking and a robot handy, I’d probably instruct it to put dinner on the table for me.

Maybe by the time I’m in my late 80s robots will be available to help out, so that I won’t have to be dependent on my son or caregivers — but I won’t count on it. I’m doing all I can to stay in shape and keep my mind active. The latest research (much of it done with the assistance of AI) gives me hope that I won’t wind up like my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, who all developed dementia as they grew elderly.

AI may our best hope for our most productive period of life as we age. If we’re lucky it may even come up with a way to preserve human intelligence in the final years of life.

Journalist Toni Denis is a frequent contributor.

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