By Bernie Bell
I was talking with someone who is concerned because his son, who was considering training to be a doctor, decided that doctors will be obsolete in 5-10 years’ time, and so, is training to work in ( or is it with?) Artificial Intelligence instead, which, as he sees it, is what will replace doctors.
The man I was talking with and I, were in agreement, that this is non-sense, but his 22 year old son, with all the arrogance of a 22 year old, is absolutely certain that he is right, and is following the right course in his life. He has all the facts and figures to hand, of how un-reliable human doctors are, how much better the machines will be, and of how his earnings and status could accrue, if he works in/with Artificial Intelligence. And yes, I am playing with the words – the irony is inescapable.
The concerned father and I, talked through both sides of the argument. I proposed the idea of how much personal contact – The Human Touch – matters, not only in the practice of medicine, but in life. I spoke of how much this can make the difference between a ‘good’ doctor, and a ‘bad’ doctor. The Human Touch, whereby the doctor can assess, by looking at a person, immediately, something of what is amiss. The eyes, the skin tone, the general ‘air’ of the person. Will a machine ever be able to do that? Apparently, according to the 22 year old Guru, a machine will, before too long, be able to read all those things, in a human. According to his Dad, he has all the answers. The Dad doesn’t agree with those answers, but the lad, has them all – or so he thinks.
His next strong argument, was that a doctor in, say their 50’s, who qualified decades ago, couldn’t possibly keep up with all the new developments and discoveries in medicine. Never mind the decades of experience gained by a human doctor, he maintains that a machine can have all the data, possibly be linked to other, similar machines, and so, more efficiently assess the malady, and, with up-to-the-minute information, prescribe the best medication for the patient. There was strong emphasis on it being the ‘best’ medication for the ailment. And I countered with – what about doctors whose first recourse isn’t to medication? But who, with humanity, assess the situation, and could actually suggest helpful treatments which didn’t rely on drugs. In this lads wonderful future world of Artificial Intelligence medical treatment, that scenario, simply wouldn’t exist.
I used to live in Suffolk. When I was leaving, I went to see my doctor, who I had known for years, and who‘s first recourse wasn’t always medication – just to say ‘Goodbye’, and thank him for being understanding of my reluctance to rely on the use of drugs, when I was unwell. We were talking of medicine, attitudes, state of mind, Healing. He said to me, that one of his patients had nothing physically wrong with her – she was just unhappy. Her maladies, had their root in her state of mind. She came to see her doctor, who did what he could to help her, whilst knowing that her ‘condition’ was one of unhappiness. Would a machine ever be able to ‘read’ a human, to be able to see that, and act accordingly?
Maybe they will be able to do so, one day – God help us all – maybe they will.
At this point, someone else joined in the discussion, with the astute observation that – it would be very likely that what was doled out as the ’best’ medication for the condition, would, in fact, be the medication which was produced by the company with most resources at their disposal to promote their product. I think that happens now – how much more so if there was more reliance on Artificial Intelligence – the kind of ‘intelligence’ which says to sell to the highest bidder?
These were some of the arguments which we went through, though we were in agreement. I think he was ‘practising’ for his next bout of discussion with his son, who has been dazzled by the pixie-dust of new technology, and the Brave New World that we all can look forward to, where machines are better than humans, because the element of human error is taken out of the equation.
Aye, but – we all know, from our own more limited contact with new technology, that when it works, it can be a marvel, very useful and time saving. But then, when it doesn’t work? What then? What if………?
It’s annoying enough to lose data or work, from our personal computer, but – at a medical facility? And note, I use that terrible word ‘facility’, not a doctors surgery – as they would no longer exist. You don’t go to your local doctor – you go to a facility. Oh, Brave New World.
Yes, human error is human error, but it’s human. To paraphrase Charles Rennie Mackintosh ‘There is hope in honest error, none in icy perfection.’ There will be error – infallibility is not possible. I was the recipient of major errors on the part of the medical establishment – but it was human, and much of it, well meaning. And I would rather be damaged by a fallible human, than by an ‘infallible’ machine. That may sound irrational, but then, being irrational, is wonderfully human.
As is enjoying an exchange of ideas, even though you agree with each other – enjoying working through the possible arguments which can be used.
The discussion was interesting, and our conclusion was that the young man would need make his own decisions, and possibly his own mistakes. A career in A.I. will probably be lucrative, whether concerned with medicine or not – if that’s what matters most to him.
But doctors – obsolete in 5-10 years’ time? Ever? I hope not, and I think not. And what if, as in the book ‘Galapagos’ by Kurt Vonnegut, the technology, and the civilisation based on it, collapses? Then the Human Touch – instincts – a ‘feel’ for how another person is feeling, will matter again. And it could come to that.
If the world of A.I. does come about, a world in which human doctors are obsolete, and a person ‘naturally’, automatically, turns to a machine to assess their health, then dole out medication as the answer to everything, I hope I won’t be in that world. Let’s face it, I probably won’t be! And that’s another angle I mentioned in this discussion – the idea that machines have an answer for everything, and a ‘cure’ for everything, takes away our acceptance of what life throws at us, and, sometimes, that is the only thing to do – accept, and work with what we have. That’s an attitude that my doctor in Suffolk very much approved of. A whole other line of discussion – would Artificial Intelligence be able to accept, or present that concept – acceptance of the inevitable? Is that a sign of true intelligence, rather than artificial? It can make for greater peace of mind.
Or – would the machine just blow a gasket!
Here on Orkney, we have a big, new, state-of-the-art hospital opened. I like the old Balfour hospital, mainly because of the people in it. Mainly the nurses, with their care for and genuine interest in the people in their care. To me, the new hospital looks a bit intimidating, but….as long as it’s ‘manned’ by the same kind of people as the old one, it should be OK. As long as the new hospital has The Human Touch, that matters more than all the robotic x-ray machines and Artificial Intelligence, put together.