In the latest on-line edition of Hospital and Health Networks Daily there is an ironic juxtaposition of commentaries. In one of those commentaries, author and futurist David Ellis ponders the day, perhaps not all that many years away, when machines become smarter at making a correct medical diagnosis than doctors. He provides some great examples of expert systems already available that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to adeptly defeat humans in many disciplines. Most experts would agree it is not a matter of if machines will become smarter than human doctors, but when. The other commentary is provided by H&HN Editor, Mathew Weinstock. He laments the dire shortage of nurses that is only getting worse because nursing schools can’t find the experienced faculty to train them. He says last year, U.S. nursing schools turned away nearly 68,000 qualified applicants due to "an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints”.
Reading those two commentaries caused me to reflect on an experience I had just earlier today when I paid a visit to the office of my good friend and colleague (and one of Microsoft’s most distinguished researchers) Dr. Eric Horvitz. Just outside of Eric’s office, visitors come across a computer display screen mounted on a pedestal. On the screen is a lifelike, although somewhat robotic, avatar head of Eric’s real-life personal assistant. The pedestal is also mounted with a camera, microphone, speakers and a Kinect controller. All of this is hooked up to a beefy looking server siting on the floor that is connected to the Microsoft network. When Eric’s virtual assistant saw me coming down the hall, she immediately asked, “Are you here to see, Eric?” “Yes”, I replied. The computer then asked, “Are you Bill Crounse?” “Yes I am”, I said. The machine answered, “Eric is running a few minutes late. Would you like me to send him an e-mail letting him know you are here, or would you like to come back later?” This dialogue went on for a few more minutes as I stated my intension to take a seat and wait for Eric to show up.
Eric’s virtual assistant has all kinds of knowledge at “her” virtual fingertips. She has full access to Eric’s calendar. She knows who he is expecting. She has years of information about Eric’s normal patterns throughout the day, how often he looks at his e-mail, how long it usually takes him to travel from one part of campus to another. In many ways, Eric’s virtual assistant knows more about Eric than his real assistant. I can certainly envision the day when a lot of what personal assistants do will be replaced by machines. When was the last time you asked your personal assistant to “take a memo”?
So, do I believe that machines will be smarter than doctors? I think most of them are already smarter than me. And what about that shortage of nurses? Could it be that the experienced faculty needed to train nurses will be supplemented by machines and certainly by distance learning? Could it be that some of the duties of nurses themselves (checking vitals, administering meds, lifting, turning, making recommendations about care) will one day be done by machines? I think that is quite likely, just as many of the mundane tasks in factories today are now done by robots.
Perhaps we shouldn’t fear a future shortage of doctors or nurses. Perhaps we should expect a future of better healthcare delivered by intelligent machines that seldom, if ever, make mistakes while we are under their care. I only ask that we retain at least a few human beings who can tenderly hold my hand when I’m in pain while reassuring me that the robots are doing the best they can.
Bill Crounse, MD Senior Director, Worldwide Health Microsoft