Goodbye HAL, hello Ellen Ripley

Goodbye HAL, hello Ellen Ripley

Hollywood has fed our anxieties around AI for years, but as social care steps into sci-fi territory it’s time to share some new stories, says Clare Morris

If you shut your eyes and imagine what AI might sound like, anyone born in the later part of the 20th century will hear the chilling Canadian monotone of HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey), the sinister Proteus (Demon Seed) or maybe Rutger Hauer’s malevolent replicant in Bladerunner.

Just as memories of the Jaws music makes our hearts race while swimming, Hollywood’s nightmare scenarios around artificial intelligence means that our excitement for what it can do is mixed up with instinctive resistance, suspicion and even fear.

And of course how we feel as citizens (and cinema goers) impacts on how we think and act as digital leaders.

Stepping back into reality, the truth is that after decades of theorising (and catastrophising) about the AI age, we’re living through its arrival. Proof comes from some fascinating cobotic trials in health and care settings.

At our recent LGA masterclass on data, digital and future trends Microsoft’s Helena Zaum cited Imperial College’s use of ‘mixed reality’ to allow medical students to attend virtual ward rounds whilst augmenting the attending doctor’s vision with X-rays, charts and colleagues’ avatars.

And you may have read about Hampshire County Council’s trial of Japanese-designed wearable cobotics, which are helping care workers moving and handling adults reduce the impact on their own physical wellbeing. The lower-back exoskeletons (deployed in partnership with robotics developer Cyberdyne, PA Consulting and Argenti) reportedly reduced carers’ need for help from colleagues – an enticing prospect for anyone assigning limited resources.

This work is about to move out of a trial phase into mainstream practice – proof if we needed it that use of emerging tech is moving at pace now.

While cost may put cutting-edge kit off limits for many commissioners right now, the opportunities presented by a new generation of AI (“assistive intelligence”, as Helena terms it) are genuinely exciting. After all, the issues we hope they’ll solve are real and urgent.

Supporting an ageing population, often geographically separated from family and friends, with our limited resources and workforce is a huge challenge that requires very fresh thinking.

Supporting independence, choice and control is a core mission for social care and tech is a great fit, especially when it comes to improving the experience of personal care, designing a more personalised service and improving the quality of face-to-face contact with professionals.

My question for digital leaders is not ‘Should we accept tech as a tolerable alternative to traditional care?’ but ‘Could it, in some situations, actually be better?’ I firmly believe it could, particularly when blended with real people and human contact to get the best of both.

If we are to really bring some of this opportunity to life we’ll need to address valid concerns from every party about what it’ll mean for them. We’ll also need to look at our problem statements and technical capability in tandem, keeping the human experience at the very core of every design.

There’s lots to explore, but the first step on our journey will be to let go of our own biases. I’ll leave you with another cinematic scene to ponder: the slight silhouette of Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley from Aliens augmented by a cobotic powersuit that gives her a physical capability that matches her steely resolve.

The trials in Hampshire and elsewhere should switch all our imaginations – commissioners, carers, service users and their families – from the domineering HAL to the triumphant human figure of Ripley. Only with a fundamental upgrade in mindset can we really start to embrace the art of the possible.

About Clare Morris
Clare Morris is a former NHS leader and co-founder of Rethink Partners, working with health and care organisations to visualise and implement change for good.