Will AI replace Dentists?
There are approximately 2 million dentists in the world, and 200,000 studying to become one. If you’re in this group, you might be wondering what effects AI may have on your profession in future.
As a futurist and someone who’s been in the chair more times than I’d wish, I wanted to share my findings on this topic, and explore the AI developments that are coming down the pipe, which will affect dentists in their daily work.
The good news is that Dentistry as a profession will generally be safe from AI displacement, for a very long time, unlike many other professions that are at existential risk. That said, dentists will see many changes in their practices due to the technological advancements that AI will bring.
Many of these changes will be beneficial to patients and dentists, which makes dentistry a little unique. AI customer service for example might be a boon for businesses, but bad news for call center workers, and frustrating for consumers who'd prefer to speak to a human.
Why will Dentists be safe from AI?
There’s several strong reasons that Dentists’ jobs are fundamentally safe from AI, for a long time to come.
Dentists work with their hands
Unlike knowledge workers, who as a group are generally most at risk from AI, Dentists work with their hands. More nuanced than this, they work dexterously, and in a highly variable environment.
This alone is enough to put a huge moat between AI and the dentist’s job.
From a technology perspective, it is extremely challenging for AI and robotics developers to contemplate replicating the dexterity and skill of a dentist, managing and manipulating a variety of tools, the subtle tactile feedback that dentists spend years learning to sense, gauge and assess, and the infinitely variable and small work environment.
While we will see a day when incomprehensibly advanced robots can do all this, the challenge from a computing and engineering perspective far exceeds that even of self-driving cars, which Silicon Valley types thought they'd crack in 10 years, but will have taken 30.
The Human Touch
Obviously there are not many people who like visiting the dentist. According to an entirely unscientific poll I ran recently, the numbers come in at 75%. This is a fair bit higher than polls run by dentistry associations incidentally, who seem to focus on ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ - a higher bar.
Dentists know this better than anyone, and successful dentists spend years developing the hard and soft skills of working in a way so as to avoid discomfort for patients, and reassuring patients.
A dentist's job is far more than diagnosis and treatment - it involves providing comfort, reassurance, emotional intelligence, a nuanced understanding of human behavior, and crucially… empathy to patients. These are all vital components of a dentist’s skillset that AI simply cannot replace, at least not anytime soon.
Dentistry changes slowly
Unlike the world of software where a new app can be released and reach hundreds of millions of users in a matter of weeks, the world of dentistry moves slowly.
Even setting aside regulation, which I’ll talk about in a moment, the fundamental nature of dentistry means change is measured.
Dentistry involves people’s health, and the necessary focus on patient safety is paramount. New treatments and procedures need to go through rigorous testing and validation. The dental community relies on clinical evidence, and conducting clinical trials or studies takes time.
Education and Training
Dentists spend years undergoing the extensive training to acquire the skills and knowledge to practice dentistry safely and effectively. Introducing significant new techniques, technologies, or materials requires additional training, which takes time.
Resistance to Change
There is a natural resistance to change within dentistry and dentists are their own bosses meaning they don't need to make any changes if they don't want to. This resistance might be influenced by personal preference, past experiences, or perceived risks.
It is much more expensive to run a dental practice than patients generally appreciate. Any new high-tech equipment is expensive, due to its specialized, niche nature, and thus represents a huge capital investment for the average dentist. The vast majority of dentists are understandably reticent to be ‘first mover’ on implementing new technology, for the reasons given, and must consider not only the financial impact on their practice, but on the patients whose fees are going to have to cover it.
Dentists don’t practice in a vacuum, dentistry is an inter-disciplinary collaboration - with orthodontists, oral surgeons and periodontists. This interdisciplinary aspect has a natural effect in slowing down adoption of new technologies and treatments, as each specialty must evaluate and adapt to the changes in their respective fields.
Dental treatments, technologies, and materials are subject to strict regulations and oversight from various governmental and professional organizations. This is to ensure patient safety, professional competency, and adherence to ethical standards. The process of obtaining regulatory approvals and meeting compliance requirements can be lengthy and complex, which slows down the adoption of new innovations.
Complex decision making
Dentists must make complex decisions based on a wide variety of information, patient history, years of experience, knowledge, and clinical judgment. While AI technology can support decision-making by analyzing large amounts of data, it is not yet capable of replicating the level of critical thinking and clinical intuition that experienced dentists possess, which relies on an intricate understanding of human biology and human nature.
Problem solving and adaptability
Dental procedures can be unpredictable, with unexpected complications or variations in patient anatomy requiring dentists to adapt their approach on the fly. Again, it takes years of education, training and experience to know how to handle unexpected situations, whether it’s patient discomfort or something less common like a dislocation, or ingestion of dental materials. AI struggles with recognition of unexpected issues, and quick, creative thinking.
Mentioned above in the context of pace of change, dentists need to communicate collaboratively with orthodontists, oral surgeons, periodontists and hygienists, and even with their front office, to provide comprehensive care for their patients. This interdisciplinary collaboration requires effective communication and teamwork, which are skills that AI will struggle with for many years.
Like all healthcare professions, dentistry can involve navigating complex ethical issues related to patient privacy, informed consent, and treatment decisions. While AI might provide valuable insights and support decision-making, it cannot grasp the ethical nuances and considerations that dentists must weigh in their daily practice.
How will AI impact Dentistry?
Having explored all the reasons why the job of Dentists are safe from AI, it’s time to look into the future at the ways that AI will impact on the profession, and a quick bit of history.
Technological backdrop and context
Modern dentistry arrived 300 years ago with the publication of Pierre Fauchard’s seminal 1723 book “The Surgeon Dentist”, although there are records showing dentistry in Italy from 14,000 years ago, and recent evidence suggesting self-treatment as far back as 130,000 years, in Neanderthal times.
Throughout the modern era of dentistry, many tools used by dentists have not changed very much. Tools such as the dental explorer, elevator and the amalgam carrier have remained much the same design for centuries. The dental mirror goes back to Roman times.
From a patient perspective, this highlights one of the anachronisms about dentistry. While dentists see notable advances in things like materials, imaging and 3D printing, patients still lie in a chair, mouth uncomfortably agape, with an array of scary objects entering their mouths. It feels a little… archaic.
AI and highly advanced robotics will change this in perhaps 30 years, but in the short term AI will introduce many new capabilities.
AI is good at analyzing large volumes of data, and understanding data adaptively and flexibly without the need for programming. Combine this with the natural language capabilities of large language models (LLM’s) - the type of technology used in ChatGPT - and AI can help both dentists and patients unlock diagnoses that would otherwise be missed.
Dentists see a very large number of patients, and with the exception of those with a photographic memory, AI can support dentists by drawing upon all historical data that it’s given access to. This might be spread across different software programs - old and new, different databases, different formats (e.g. scanning old handwritten notes by learning a dentist’s handwriting), audio recordings, video recordings, x-rays, scans and imaging in general, and photos. Expect to see many developments in this regard with AI in future, that get easier to implement and use.
Dentists know the right questions to ask, and like millions who are currently learning how best to ask questions (and get good answers out) of ChatGPT, dentists will learn quickly how to gain truly valuable insights and information out of ‘DentistGPT’.
These AI LLM models will be possible to run locally within the practice (localized AI) e.g. on a surgery computer, as opposed to in the cloud, depending on the preference of the dentist. Vendors will offer both options, although dentists should steer towards local models as I'll explain more shortly.
AI is well suited to office tasks and productivity such as appointment scheduling, email, billing, and insurance processing, allowing dentists and their front office staff to focus more on patient care and human contact. It’s true this may mean less dental receptionists might be needed in a busy practice, although patients may not react well to a fully automated front desk, as this video shows.
AI will be able to assist dentists in developing personalized treatment plans, if only as a second opinion, by analyzing patient data, dental images, and treatment history, and combining it with massive volumes of data from elsewhere, including potentially millions of other patients and every medical paper, to recommend the most suitable procedures, and predict treatment outcomes with accurate percentages. This would give dentists a new tool to advise patients, avert mistakes, and save dentists valuable time.
Within the next 2-3 years it will start to become possible for a dentist to make their own AI avatar / agent, that can be ‘trained’ (in industry parlance) on the entirety of that dentist’s communications. This could include emails with patients, patient records, website articles, published papers or books, or any other writings. It will be trivial to train the same AI on voice recordings too.
What this means is that you could effectively create an AI 'mini-me' that could respond to emails, speak on the phone using your voice, or even appear in a real-time video chat using your own speaking style. Combined with all of dentistry’s knowledge, your personal AI could respond instantly and knowledgeably to patients when you are not available. Not every patient might want this, but perhaps given the choice between a 1-3 day wait, versus an instant consultation, they might choose the latter.
Within 5 years it will be possible for this AI avatar to be video realistic, in other words looking exactly like you, and in real-time.
No doubt regulators will have their own things to say about this, and there are issues and complexity over liability, but at its simplest, these issues could be handled with a prominent disclaimer.
AI powered toothbrushes and wearables will offer an ability to combine with dentist’s in-house AI records, and help dentists monitor patients oral health remotely, track brushing habits, detect potential issues earlier, and provide targeted feedback and education on oral hygiene.
This service will work best in combination with dentists records. This means, from the dentist’s perspective, among other things… protection from disintermediation by online platform providers, loyalty among existing patients, and a highly beneficial (and impressive) service to patients. Your patient’s records, and your own writings, are going to be very valuable data in an AI world. There’s a reason Twitter, Reddit and other large content platforms are demanding payments from AI companies for their data to be trained on by AI.
Be extremely wary about giving up your proprietary data to 3rd parties. Localized AI, or local-hosted-AI i.e on your own computers, protects you from this, so look for this option when evaluating AI software from vendors.
That idea or theory you’ve had kicking around your head for years... you can develop it now much more easily with AI. You can do some of this even with ChatGPT. As you move into localized AI that has access to all your patients’ records, being able to ask questions of your patients' data, or ask AI to look for patterns, or combine and compare every clinical study against your own patients, and all of this as natural language questions and answers. The possibilities for discovery alone are profound.
ChatGPT and other LLM's can summarize long texts, create custom software programs or tools for your website, answer questions about equipment and technical issues, and much more.
As you can see, there is a lot AI could do in dental practices.
What does the future of AI and robotics look like in Dentistry? (10-30 years)
As a futurist, my job is to stay educated on a broad range of technology developments, and see where combinations are likely to occur, typically in an effect-on-business context. Here’s my thoughts on what the far future of AI in dentistry will look like.
Miniaturization is an inevitable trend in technology that has taken its time coming to robotics. Most state-of-the-art robots are still quite large. Think Boston Dynamics with its robotic dog and humanoid robot, or the DaVinci robotic system - which is hardly svelte. The Yomi dental implant robot from Neocis is also big.
The future of robots in dentistry is small. From a patient perspective I would be overjoyed to go to a dentist, open my mouth a little while a grape sized sphere enters on the end of a rod, opens up in my mouth to reveal its tiny arms, turns on its light and cameras, and goes about its business giving me the best scaling I’ve ever had, or whatever dental procedure I might need.
Using AI it could scan the inside of my mouth in 360 degrees, a hundred times a second, and be able to react instantly to my gag reflex or an involuntary movement of the tongue, so that I basically never touch it. If I try to close my mouth down on it, the tiny robot and its tools disappears into its grape-like shell, and releases some flavoring on its outer casing so it tastes like a candy.
Meanwhile I’m reassured that my dentist is sitting in the chair next to me, cracking jokes about how he doesn’t have to do much anymore.
This may seem science fiction, but with the developments I’m seeing, I believe it will be possible in 30 years.
Robot Dental Assistants
General purpose robots - humanoid and other, are going to see a rapid uptick in advances in the next two decades due to AI. We’ll see humanoid robots on our streets in 10-15 years, likely delivering packages. It’s not a stretch for such general purpose robots to handle the work of dental assistants and cleaning tasks around the surgery.
In this deep-dive on the world of AI and robotics as it relates to dentistry, I’ve shown how the job of dentists are fundamentally safe from AI, how the work of dentists will get easier, and how patient care and services can improve dramatically.
I’m not someone who is bullish on AI generally, I don’t think the world is ready for it, but within the field of dentistry at least, I am genuinely optimistic for the benefits AI and robotics can bring.
Conclusion: Very Safe | Time Period: 30 Years