Will a robot ever be able to comfort us when we are sick?
As a doctor, my job might disappear in the near future. Will only the romance of the job remain?
“Everyone who is now working in Excel, will become unnecessary in the near future. Our acts as human beings are nothing more than a function of several determinants.” The words of Max Welling, professor artificial intelligence at the University of Amsterdam, are crystal clear. It is only a matter of time before robots take over any task that requires decision making based on a big amount of data. Driving my bike on the boring road towards the Academic Medical Centre, his interview is everything but dull. At the hospital, I open my database. I am a PhD candidate at the department of surgery. One day I hope to become a surgeon. But am I not playing the violin at the Titanic? What is my future as a doctor?
One week later I am sitting across of doctor Gavin Francis, author of the book Adventures in a Human Being. He does not fear his position at all. Moreover, he states that there will be an absolute desire for doctors. “Patients trust me; they expect me to help them. A good doctor knows what kind of doctor a patient wants. A doctor who listens to the things that are not being said.” But who is right? Max Welling or Gavin Francis?
Actually, it does not matter so much who is better: a doctor or a robot, a hotel or AirBnB, a taxidriver or Uber. What matters is what kind of service people want. If you want a place to stay, you look for one. If you want to get from A to B, you look for transport. And if you are feeling sick, you look for someone or something to make you feel better. Does it really matter if that is a robot or a human being? Only one person can answer that question: the patient.
Kindly putting your stethoscope at the chest; empathy is also a form of treatment
The matter of feeling better. That is the service that people in the health care are looking for. Health is a subjective feeling. And even more so, it can change over time. Medicine resides somewhere between science and knowledge of human nature. Doctors try to treat patients based on evidence. At the same time, we do not have evidence for a lot of things.
Both patients and doctors do not like to do nothing. Resignation feels uncomfortable. The evolution of our brains has even developed a mechanism for feeling better through interventions that actually have no effect: it is called placebo. Empathy is also a form of therapy. Will a robot ever be able to comfort us? Will we be strong enough to accept a diagnosis from a cold, heartless computer?
And even so, there is another issue prior to therapy. When are we sick? The future will give us technology that provides feedback about our human body night and day. Do we really want a Google glass that continuously shows your blood pressure and your body temperature? It is quite stressful to see the effort your body is making to keep you in balance. We always have a little bit of cancer (cell division is essential to maintain alive) and probably, we have some fever during the day (trying to catch the train). Private parties that benefit from the so called ‘wearables’ have a business model in linking your data to companies that can earn money from making you feel ‘sick’.
It is nice to talk with Francis about the romanticism of the art of being a doctor. The human body is endlessly fascinating and it is a humble and very honorable task to help a person in times of hardship. On the other hand, I can see the future Welling predicts and I am looking forward to it. Evolutionary algorithms will be capable to analyze a complex case a lot quicker and to see patterns in large amounts of data that we cannot grasp. It will be essential in order some of the most challenging aspects in medicine.
The Titanic sank. A few decennia later, a romantic film was being made about the story. In fifty years’ time, my job will not be the same as it is today. Maybe, the only thing that will remain are the romantic books, where a human doctor put his stethoscope tenderly at a chest to listen. To the heart. That beats.