It’s tempting to be weary of artificial intelligence (AI) discussions right now. As it’s one of the dominant topics whenever anyone talks about the future of health care, we’re possibly at the saturation point where people get a little fed up hearing about the utopia—or, depending on the speaker, doomsday—it will bring. I propose a more modest view: AI’s effect will be unobtrusive, imperfect and kind of annoying. Think C-3PO, not HAL-9000.

People sometimes assume AI is going to happen in a radical and practice-changing way all at once—boom, one day the computers will do all the work and doctors will just be clerks. Fact is, you’ve been using AI for years without quite realizing it. If you have an OCT, the normative databases in those devices are an early form of AI. And the reliability indices on automated perimeters have been giving eye doctors a helping hand for far longer than that. 

Expect AI integration to continue along established and familiar vectors like those. The next wave of AI will enter your office by way of a perfunctory software download, not a battering ram to the door. Topcon just bought a small company that specializes in using AI for diagnostic purposes, most notably diabetic retinopathy screening, and will be adding those capabilities to its imaging product lines at some point.

AI’s future is inevitably going to linked with that of telemedicine, too. As computers get better at scanning large datasets for anomalies they can then apply prospectively to patient screenings, the need for face-to-face real-time interaction between doctor and patient decreases. While some doctors may find this troublesome, others see it as liberating. It “can create an environment that improves outcomes and provides more care for more individuals—the right place, the right care, the right time,” said Anthony Cavallerano, OD, in his talk on telemedicine during the plenary session of the recent American Academy of Optometry annual meeting. But again, this will happen incrementally, not overnight.

A previous speaker at the plenary, Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, noted that health care is decentralizing away from hospitals and doctors’ offices and out into the communities, including chains like CVS and Walmart. This ‘retail medicine’ has been alarming to some, but Dr. Emanuel said it helps people with chronic diseases work their healthcare needs into their everyday lives. With a telemedicine link back to a qualified doctor, this ‘bring the mountain to Mohammed’ approach stands to be a net positive.

Dr. Cavallerano noted that one the biggest proponents of television in its earliest days was RCA. Maybe that’s not surprising, until you learn that the acronym stands for Radio Corporation of America. The company in control of the dominant medium of communication was eager to move to the next big thing, and ushered it in. The message: don’t fear the future, help invent it yourself.

Because all intelligence—human and otherwise—is fallible, doctors’ expertise will always remain the linchpin. AI will help you be a better doctor, not an unemployed one.