Is Artificial Intelligence going to replace healthcare professionals?

What is the square root of 8? Fifty years ago, our math teacher would show us how to do it with pencil and paper. Before exiting high school, we would use 4 or 5 figure tables to find out, or maybe we had a slide ruler in our desk or schoolbag to do it even faster. Well, that was probably as late as the 60s, but since the 70s most of us got used to using electronic calculators, which were initially bulky and more suited for desktop use, until they eventually developed into handheld, pocket-sized, push-button devices. By the turn of the millennium, even cumbersome analogic cellphones could do most of our calculations, but nothing compares to the power of present-day smartphones, which outstrip the original calculators in power and speed, when we use the app on the touchscreen. 

I frequently use this example, whenever I hear comments about computers replacing our brains, leading to down-wiring our neuronal connections to pre-human, primate levels. Few of us would, at this point, bother about how to calculate square roots with pencil and paper. I could barely even guess at how I did it: I’d have to Google or check Wikipedia for the answer and later wouldn’t even bother to find out again. Even this latter example takes us back to how we mine for information. Libraries at this point of history are virtual: being a bookworm investigator is going to take us nowhere. Patients Google their symptoms to the point of self-diagnosing, a practice which, for the time-being, is more risky than safe, but… will this always be so? For those of us who have read Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel & Rau, 2018) the answer is clear: the power of computational algorithms, machine and deep learning via neural networks, will create a new reality for humans. The question is: will this be analogous to the handheld calculators cum smartphone apps? 

For the time-being, making a diagnosis out of symptoms, physical findings and personal, social and family history is pretty complex. It needs human interaction, a certain amount of guesswork and intuition, left and right-brain approaches to problems, plus the interpretation of all the information in the background of past experiences of the physician, under similar or analogous situations. Although we’re all aware that there are investigators out there working on this, it may be a while before we have reliable artificial intelligence (AI) doing doctors’ diagnostic work – but just don’t think it’ll never happen. 

An area where AI does excel at present is in the interpretation of images. In a sense, it mimics or reproduces what humans do looking at raw data (figures, shapes, colours) via our eyes, retina, occipital cortex and the connections to the rest of the brain. Images in medicine are everywhere: the skin (dermatology), the retina (ophthalmology), x-rays, CTs, MRIs (radiology), pathology slides (pathology). AI algorithms have beat top-notch specialists in making diagnoses of malignant melanoma, early signs of diabetic retinopathy, identification of lung nodules predictive of malignancy and cell and tissue patterns in slides that predict serious illnesses. Recall that, back in 1997, Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess, so this shouldn’t surprise us. 

Does this mean that dermatologists, ophthalmologists, radiologists and pathologists will be replaced by AI algorithms (plus all the other medical specialties lining up in death row…)? I may surprise my readers with a YES answer, but I’ll have to explain myself. As AI progressively replaces our cognitive processes, those doctors who do not ramp up their knowledge on the use of algorithms, will experience the extinction of the paper and pencil square root calculations. 

Therefore the answer to the question in the title is clearly that AI will come after our physician jobs in our present state and make them obsolete and unmarketable. This will surely take place with the coming generation of Centennials (those born after the year 2000). Although many believe that AI will degrade our brains to a primitive state, my impression is otherwise: AI is just another tool that humans have invented, since the spark of intelligence, as portrayed in the memorable Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes encounter the monolith and make the leap into the use of technology, using bones as weapons to defend themselves from their enemies. 

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