Bruce Meets Maria – Artificial Intelligence in the ICU

It was a moment he would live thousands of times, played out slowly, some details emerging, others fading.  There is always the music playing softly as he reads the daily news feed on his tablet, relaxing comfortably with part of his attention on the smooth motion of his vehicle, that sense of enjoyment he got from those few times of constant motion in his commute.  And then a fog seems to fall across the scene.  He is outside of himself, watching, sitting there, a half smile at some humorous post and then a sudden figure appearing in the right window, a vehicle moving much too fast, much too close, something he hadn’t even thought possible in this age of Autonomous Driving Vehicles…

The fog turned to darkness yet he knew he was awake.  He moved to turn on a light and felt the curious sensation of no response to his desire.  A far away feeling of something like panic echoed, moving toward him in some delayed Doppler effect.

A voice whispered from the darkness nearby, soft music playing – something familiar…

“Hello, Bruce.  Please try to remain calm.”  A soft female voice, trying to be reassuring but… “Bruce you’ve had a car accident.  You are in the hospital.”

Holy fuck.  His mind started to spin, images shooting past, sounds of metal, screaming.  And just as quickly they began to fade into a slow fog.  The voice again, speaking more clearly, his mind clinging to this one point.

“You’re going to be OK, Bruce.  I’ve given you a little medicine to help you be calm.  You are in the intensive care unit.  I’m going to begin raising the lights so I can get a better look at you.  You can not speak right now.  There is a tube in your throat helping you breath.  We have had to restrain your arms so that you don’t accidentally pull it out.”

The fog began to recede slightly as his surroundings slowly became more visible.  He became aware of a screen falling down in front of him and he reached up to catch it but found he could not move his hands.  The screen stopped in front of his center of vision and a young woman appeared.  She looked very familiar, but he could not quite remember where he knew her from.

“Hello Bruce.  I am your assistant while you are here in the hospital.  You can call me Maria.  I have alerted your nurse that you are awake but she is with another patient right now.  I am going to ask you some questions in the mean time.  You can answer by moving your lips, tapping your fingers or blinking your eyes twice for yes and three times for no, or nodding and shaking your head.  Do you understand?”

He lay there for a moment as the words pressed through the fog.  He started to move his lips but found it to be difficult.  He tapped his finger twice in the glove on his hand.  The action brought with it clarity, awareness.  He was beginning to interact with his environment now.  A sense of reality pressed in.  He consciously moved toward the fog of the medication.

The assistant, whose image was modeled on faces gleaned from Bruce’s various social media sites, smiled.  “Excellent.  I’ll just give you as much information as possible and you can interrupt at any time.”  She proceeded to tell him in more detail where he was and the extent of the injuries he had suffered.  The room became more clear as she spoke and he calmly noted the plethora of machines and tubes that surrounded him, approaching from every angle.  He concentrated instead on her image and the reassuring sound of her voice which was a barrier against the panic that was trying to push its way into his mind.  Music played softly in the background.  He recognized it from the classical playlist of his Spotify account.

“Your nurse is approximately 2 minutes away.  I have completed a visual and vital sign assessment and you seem to be progressing well.  I can provide you with a clinician if you would like a further review before he arrives.”

tap..tap..tap.  He felt reassured by the familiar look of her face and voice.  He realized now that she was a virtual intelligent agent and not a human talking into a camera, but in this world where such agents were so ubiquitous she was a calming presence, a connection to a vast network of information and resources that gave him reassurance.

“Excellent.  You’re going to be fine, Bruce.  This institution has been granted multiple…”

Her voice began to fade into a soupy blackness.

“Bruce?  Bruce can you hear me?  I’m detecting a change in your level of consciousness can you please move your fingers?”  The assistant activated his blood pressure measurement.  “Bruce your blood pressure is low.  I am initiating a rapid response call.”

As he lost consciousness Bruce was vaguely aware of a group of people suddenly flooding his room, all part of some strange dance to the discordant music suddenly blaring from all directions.  He heard Maria listing all his vital signs, giving his history, the screen moving out of his fading field of vision replaced by a concerned man’s face.  He felt himself being shaken, but felt unwilling to answer as blackness again took over.

This post is part of a  collection of scenarios of what the implementation of artificial intelligence in a clinical setting would look like.  My primary focus will be on patient and clinical staff interaction with a hospital ‘assistant’ – interactive agents rather than the decision supporting agents concerned with diagnosis that are the focus of most articles on AI in healthcare.

Leave a Reply