Hi,thanks for coming, the medical assistant says,greeting a mother with her 5-year-old son. Are you here for your child or yourself? The boy, the mother replies. He has diarrhea. Oh no,sorry to hear that, she says,looking down at the boy.
The assistant asks the mother about other symptoms,including fever (slight) and abdominal pain (He hasnt been complaining). She turns again to the boy. Has your tummy been hurting? Yes,he replies.
After a few more questions,the assistant declares herself not that concerned at this point. She schedules an appointment with a doctor in a couple of days. The mother leads her son from the room. But he keeps looking back at the assistant,fascinated.
Maybe that is because the assistant is the disembodied likeness of a womans face on a computer screen a no-frills avatar. Her words of sympathy are jerky,flat and mechanical. But she has the right stuff the ability to understand speech,recognise pediatric conditions and reason according to simple rule to make an initial diagnosis of a childhood ailment and its seriousness. And to win the trust of a little boy.
Our young children and grandchildren will think it is completely natural to talk to machines that look at them and understand them, said Eric Horvitz,a computer scientist at Microsofts research laboratory.
Computer scientists have been pursuing artificial intelligence. But in recent years,rapid progress has been made in machines that can listen,speak,see,reason and learn. The prospect,according to scientists,is not only that artificial intelligence will transform the way humans and machines communicate,but will also eliminate millions of jobs,create many others and change the nature of work. The artificial intelligence technology that has moved furthest into the mainstream is computer understanding of what humans are saying.
The number of American doctors using speech software to record and transcribe accounts of patient visits and treatments has more than tripled in the past three years to 150,000. The progress is striking. A few years ago,supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscle) got translated as fish banana. Today,the software transcribes all kinds of medical terminology letter perfect,doctors say.