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.