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Source: University of Auckland

Feature: Artificial intelligence offers powerful new opportunities, but also unprecedented challenges. Owen Poland talks to University of Auckland AI experts about where the technology may lead us.

Professor Gill Dobbie says New Zealand has a lot to benefit from AI — we just have to work out how to best do that. Photo: Elise Manahan

The prospect of a neurosurgeon being guided by artificial intelligence to perform brain surgery is thought provoking, to say the least. However, the potential precision that comes from using AI to diagnose and treat complex medical procedures may be closer to reality than many care to think.

There’s no doubt that AI has rapidly begun to touch many walks of life, so much so that it became the Collins Dictionary word of the year in 2023. For Auckland Bioengineering Institute research fellow Dr Hamid Abasi, the technology led him into a brave new world of medical research.

“AI is poised to revolutionise every aspect of current medical practice and patient care, equipped with robust capabilities that significantly enhance outcomes,” he says.

For Hamid, the revolution is the development of an advanced neuro-navigation tool called Neurofanos. Meaning ‘lantern’ or ‘to bring to light’, the tool is designed to analyse complex data in real-time and provide neurosurgeons with high-resolution images while they conduct high-risk tasks like brain tumour resection.

“AI improves precision and helps surgeons see through the ‘unseen’ to visualise and preserve critical structures at every moment of surgery,” he says. “Knowing those factors is going to help reduce accidental harm and then improve patient care and outcomes.”

Having won the University of Auckland’s 2022 Velocity $100k Challenge, the transdisciplinary Neurofanos team of biomedical engineers, Auckland City Hospital neurosurgeons and researchers at the Mātai Medical Research Institute were subsequently granted $1 million from the MBIE Endeavour Smart Ideas fund.

“That funding has helped us to find our feet and start walking,” says Hamid, but “we need to run”. Additional financial support will be required to get the concept into operating theatres as soon as possible.

“Our talented team is fully equipped with all the necessary expertise and resources and is set for a robust launch,” he says. “But we need more local funding to ensure that the IP stays within the country.”

Beyond Neurofanos, Hamid believes that AI will play an increasing role in what’s known as personalised or precision medicine for illnesses like cancer, where advanced algorithms can explore long-range connectivity in data that humans struggle to comprehend.

“AI is able to bring it forward, analyse it in a blink and say, ‘Look, this patient needs this specific type of care. This is the right time to start the treatment’.”


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