The worried luddite

Living in a post google search world means that the answer to every question is not only within reach of a 10 second computer search but also the answer can be a multitude of different things.

Take this question for example: ‘what is the use of Gabapentin?

This question produced 5,800,000 results in 0.92 seconds. That’s crazy. It would take me a life time to read through each one of these entries. So obviously I don’t. In fact I already knew the answer vaguely and just needed reconfirmation. But what happened is that on 5 different webpages, I was given a slightly different answer. Not only was I confused but also frustrated. Was the question I was trying to answer worth the twenty minutes of trawling around? Wouldn’t an old-fashioned look up in some book been easier (Yes: this is why the BNF exists).

Technology offers us so much. Hi-tech equipment to do routine surgeries. The concept of e-consultations where the need for doctor and patient to be in the same location is gone. The robotics used in complex surgeries. Even the blood pressure machine is no longer manually used. Let’s face it, technology has revolutionised medicine forever. And we don’t want to go back! We’re far connected, stable and stronger as an industry than we have ever been before. We are saving more people, treating more families and overall achieving higher feats on a day by day basis.

However a talk with my brother (and then subsequent many chats with many engineers) had me wondering what direction our beautifully expanding technological field will take us. We are already in the era of driver-less cars and 3D printing.  Surely it is not too incredulous to imagine a near future where routine check-ups are done by artificial intelligence? Or coughs and colds be automatically diagnosed through a system of exclusion criteria. I used to work for a service which used algorithms to come up with a likely diagnosis. Effectively using the knowledge of many doctors and compiling it into a workable computer program. How long until our machines start doing what we already do. This already has a name: machine learning. Recently a machine beat a human at the game ‘go’. A game far more complex than chess and undefeated by a non-human since its conception centuries before. And when our machines are as good as we are, how long until they get better? What will be the role of doctors then? Will we be there to provide moral support and talking therapies? Won’t that be a good thing? Doctors are always saying how over-worked they are!

But surely humanity cannot be replaced? Can it? What makes us humans so? What makes us tick? Why do we emote and feel? No one has completely figured this out. The more I study the more I feel that medicine is absolutely not just a science. It’s an art. Ask any doctor and they will give you examples of where they’ve not relied on computer algorithms and text-book learning. They’ve relied on compassion, empathy, communication and most importantly experience. Nothing in medicine is cut-clear. There are areas of grey, scales and degrees to diagnoses and disease. The reasons is because the human brain and body is complex. Far more complex than any machine ever built. We, the flawed, egoistic, narcissistic humans are the perfect example of the epitome of creation. We are also the creators of machines. We created machine learning and artificial intelligence and it is here to stay.

There may be a day many many years in the future when instead of seeing your doctor, you’d be seeing a machine. We are racing and advancing ahead in the field of medical-technology at a rate greater than ever before. Making leaps and bounds but is the future where humans are no longer needed really a future we want to jump towards? As the creator of the TV show ‘Black Mirror’ said: ‘I’m not scared about the future of technology but I am worried about it.’




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