Bob Stone turned 60 last year. His heart turned 71. “It jolts you to think about your mortality. You think, ‘Shit, my heart is 71 and the average male worldwide lives to 77. I have a lot of things I have to get done and I have six years left to do it.”
The technology that gave Stone that life-changing information – he’s since started new drugs and a dietary regime that have shaved several years from his heart’s biological age – was a form of artificial intelligence (AI). It’s not what science fiction would dub AI – a type of spooky thinking robot that can take on a life of its own – but a form of machine learning that has been around for many years and is growing in sophistication and usefulness.
The signals from Stone’s heart indicated early damage to his heart muscle, something that was not apparent from his ultrasound or clinical symptoms of atrial fibrillation (rapid heartbeat) and raised blood pressure, which are both common problems.
“Machines can see things we just can’t possibly see,” says Stone’s cardiologist, Patrick Gladding, who believes his Auckland practice is the first in the country to use the advanced ECG clinically. The machine is also used at the Waitematā District Health Board, but only for research. Artificial intelligence is trained to see patterns rather than single features, says Gladding, who uses the example of a city skyline. “Your eye sees key features such as the Sky Tower, but it’s really the relative height of various buildings that tells you this is Auckland rather than Shanghai. Similarly, in medicine, we are hung up on single biomarkers or diagnostic tools for disease, but what the human mind does is integrate that into a pattern comparing this with the knowledge from experience and theory. Human-guided AI really just externalises that and adds an extra layer of sensitivity so that very subtle patterns can be detected.”
The information the ECG provided on Stone prompted the former American football player to lose about 10kg and enabled Gladding to personalise his drug treatment.