Former President & CEO, INTEGRIS Health

Humans versus Machines

One of my favorite television shows when I was a child was Star Trek.  I remember Doctor McCoy waving small hand-held device over the patient and pronouncing solemnly, “Your appendix is about to burst,” without ever touching the patient.  Captain Kirk relied heavily on Dr. McCoy and his magical devices to keep his crew healthy.

Sooner or later the future catches up with us.  One of my heroes in today’s medicine is the radiologist who detects an almost indistinguishable shadow in an x-ray or MRI and pronounces that it is probably a cancerous tumor.  Many lives have been saved because of the expertise of these physicians.

However, futurists are telling us that we are but a short step away (because of Artificial Intelligence (AI)) from a computer that can diagnose these almost indistinguishable shades of dark and light far better than any human, no matter what their training and skills.

Physicians are expected to carry in their minds the accumulated medical wisdom of the ages and recapture those memories at a moment’s notice when coming up with a complex diagnosis for a difficult patient.  Clearly the technologists tell us that machines will be able to do it far better.  Not only will they be able to detect the vagaries of human illness far quicker and with more accuracy than any human, they will have predictive capabilities that mere mortals can only dream of.

If all of this is in our future, how do we feel about it?  Are we willing or even anxious to have AI computers make medical decisions formerly reserved for the most learned of physicians?  In the future, will the conclusions of the medical profession be the final arbiter and override any computer diagnosis, or will the opposite in fact be true?  So, if physicians of the future do not rely on AI, will their best judgement be countermanded by a computer-driven solution?

Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this future.  Then again, I’m of a generation that grew up putting its entire trust in the decisions of our doctor. I can remember my pediatrician sitting on my bed at my home assuring my mother that whatever malady had befallen me, I would recover. 

Even if these predictions of the preeminence of AI are true, it never will replace the confidence my mother had in that pediatrician.

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