Raging against the early predicting AI machine

4 minute read

Believe it or not, I don’t want to know early if I have dementia. I’d rather be ignorant than depressed.

If I look too closely at my family’s medical history, I can feel like I’m staring into a railway tunnel with a very bright light growing slowly larger.

On the paternal side there’s severe type 1 diabetes, hypertension, coronary disease, atrial fibrillation and alopecia. On the maternal side there’s Parkinson’s disease, early onset Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Woo to the bloody old hoo.

I’m doing all I can to ward off the genetic juggernaut heading my way. After a lifetime of yo-yo dieting that did nothing but make me progressively fatter, bariatric surgery has seen me drop over 60kg; I’ve kicked that addictive bitch sugar to the kerb; I take antihypertensives, anticoagulants, cardiac rate mediators, multivitamins and PPIs up the wazoo. I try to exercise as often as life’s other commitments let me.

When there is a surfeit of evidence – what sugar does to the human body, for instance, or what AF does to your chances of stroke, or what highly processed food does to your gut, weight, arteries, heart and brain – then I will do whatever is necessary to alleviate that risk.

I’ve even – and gentle reader let me tell you, this is an imposition – reduced my cheese intake. Yes, really. The French economy almost collapsed on the back of that measure.

The one thing I will not do, however, is take a genetic or any other kind of biomarker test that will tell me my fate when it comes to conditions for which the evidence for early intervention is … shall we say … lightweight.

Dementia, for example.

Why on earth would I want to know what my chances are of developing the disease that has left my mother tearing up her love letters from the early days of her romance with my father because she’d rather believe he was cheating on her than that he died three years ago?

If the answer to that question was “because you can take a pill that will stop it happening”, then okay. But that’s not the answer, clearly.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have developed a new artificial intelligence tool to help doctors assess the early signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Why, is my question. Why?

“The system, known as CognoSpeak, uses a virtual agent displayed on a screen to engage a patient in a conversation,” says a press release on the AI tool.

“It asks memory-probing questions inspired by those used in outpatient consultations and conducts cognitive tests, such as picture descriptions and verbal fluency tests.

“The tool then uses artificial intelligence and speech technology to analyse language and speech patterns to look for signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders.”

According to the researchers, CognoSpeak is designed to “work in between primary and secondary care”.

“This means that once fully rolled out, a GP could refer a person with memory complaints to use the technology. CognoSpeak would send the test results back to the GP and then they would decide whether they need to refer the patient to a memory clinic for further assessment,” says the report.

“CognoSpeak can be accessed through a web browser – meaning patients are able to take the test in the comfort of their home via a computer, laptop or tablet, rather than having to wait for a hospital appointment to take a pen-and-paper-based assessment, which can often cause undue stress and anxiety.”

The researchers say the AI tool is “as accurate at predicting Alzheimer’s as the current pen-and-paper-based tests”.

“The team has demonstrated accuracies of 90% for distinguishing people with Alzheimer’s from people that are cognitively healthy.”

So, again, I say, why?

Why find out now that you are on an inexorable path to cognitive hell? Is there a medication that can stop it? No – you only have to read the long sagas of research on amyloid-busting drugs to know that there’s a good chance we’re face-first down the wrong rabbit hole there.

Is there anything I can do that I’m not already doing to stop it happening? No.

So why make myself miserable, anxious and depressed earlier than I need to? It will become obvious over time.

I’m inclined to rage against the machine of AI, anyway. Give me a good GP with a kind bedside manner over a poxy iPad any day.

Send story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au to remain blissfully ignorant of the horrors that await.

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