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Handheld Doctors

The presence of doctors in the post-TNG Star Trek universe has always confused me.  I mean when all you need to do is scan a patient with a small handheld device and get an instant diagnosis, what’s the point of doctors?  When a 1980′s cell phone sized apparatus and a sophisticated computer program running on a holo-matrix can do everything from diagnose the common cold, to perform complex surgery, to devise experimental treatments, to create new drugs, where’s the room for human doctors?  We ugly bags of mostly water are prone to biases and error.

I’ve been thinking about this since the recent announcement of the $10,000,000 Tricorder X Prize

Today in the developed world, preventable medical errors in hospitals result in tens of thousands of deaths per year; preventable medication errors occur at least 1.5 million times per year; and, on average, adults receive only half of recommended care. In the developing world, billions of people have no access to medical care. The Tricorder X PRIZE will award $10 million to the team that develops a mobile solution that can inexpensively diagnose patients by combining expert systems and medical point-of-care data—such as lab-on-a-chip or wireless sensors, provide a recommended course of treatment, and upload all relevant data to the cloud. The prize aims to incentivize consumer empowerment in healthcare by extending the reach of health information and services to more people. As a result, seven billion people around the world can have access to low-cost, reliable, medical diagnostics, which will ultimately prevent pandemics and save lives.

I like the idea of a low-cost diagnostic device like the Star Trek tricorder.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that we’re not even close being able to removing MDs from the equation.  The tricorder (or hologram) would have to have some very sophisticated AI backing it up for that.  Besides, I don’t even think an AI could replace human instinct, experience and that “gut feeling” that I’m sure every doctor uses.

And from my limited knowledge of where we stand on AI right now in the 21st century, we’re far, far, from that.  Maybe about 350-400 years away?  Sounds about right.

6 comments to Handheld Doctors

  • petrucio

    I think that depending on how basic a ‘diagnoser’ you want, you wouldn’t need too much of an AI to be more accurate than many not so bright doctors.

    As far as I know, the process of diagnosing is pretty much collecting all symptoms and seeing where they lead you to, something that a stupid computer is much better equipped to do than a human. Of course, that’s for basic, day-to-day, non-House cases.

    And even if you do want a general AI type doctor, non-stupid, 350-400 years just tells me you are having a problem thinking exponentially. You may disagree with Kurzweil all you want, but 400 years sounds a lot crazier than he does.

  • Mat

    I don’t think experience and “human instinct” would be what would hold back the AI doctor. The task of diagnosing a patient given the symptoms seems like a solvable one. AI today can already do similar things – just look at the AI “Watson” who beat puny humans at jeapordy by drawing from a large body of knowledge to find appropriate answers to the questions.

    What’s so special about “gut feelings” anyway? It’s just a set of learned biases which work well. Computers can do the same thing.

    I’d say a bigger problem is the actual interaction between doctor and patient, which is not so straightforward. We have a while to go before we have friendly EMHs treating us :)

  • jaymatteo

    Similarly, I’ve always wondered why, in a world where a baby can be safely and painlessly ‘beamed’ out of the mother’s womb (I recall this happening in at least one episode), anyone would elect to undergo natural childbirth. Leaving the pain aside for a moment, this procedure would simply be safer for both parent and child.

  • shig23

    And why bother at all with starships crewed by 400+ individual sentients? That’s what I’ve always wondered. Why not just use 400+ holograms, and a computer big enough to maintain them? It would resolve the whole manned-versus-unmanned-exploration debate in one swell foop.

    Of course, it’d be more efficient to leave out the holograms and just put the computer in charge. We already know that, by the 24th century, you don’t even have to pull wires or crank levers to get the ship to do things it was never designed to do. Just tap a few buttons on a touch screen, and bzapp! A computer can do that.

    It makes logical sense, but it’d make lousy television. TV producers just aren’t very good at thinking through the implications of the technologies they blithely toss around.

  • @shig23 “And why bother at all with starships crewed by 400+ individual sentients?” that’s an easy one. We crew the starships with sentients so that the sentients will get to go places. Seriously, whats the point of building the fricking thing if you don’t actually go anywhere in it?

  • Myk

    @Mat: But imagine if we could only get all the people that have the right people skills, but insufficient dedication to become medical practitioners – you know, the ones that today become quacks and woo practitioners, and arm them with easy access to real medical knowledge. They can spend the quality interaction time without the ten years of study required.

    But otherwise, yeah, if my reading of the Science Based Medicine blog has taught me anything, it’s that medical practitioners’ “instincts” are nowhere near as useful as a quality reference accessing the latest information would be.

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