Robots as Physicians

Job descriptions have evolved in character and number over the years.  A Computer was a job
at one point in time.  Computers were men who sat in a room with a pencil and paper
performing the job of calculating.  Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing were jobs
that they performed.  Years ago, people purchased fat books containing logarithms base ten of
numbers so that they could perform the duties of the job ‘calculator.’  If you read introduction
to such books you will find that it contains the names of the people who originally calculated
these numbers and wrote them down.  These people were called computers.  There is a
detailed description of the history of each mistake in the original text and the human
computer that found the mistake and corrected it.

It goes without saying that most jobs were manual labor at one point in time.  Carrying water,
plowing fields, tending to domesticated animals and cleaning house are just a few of these
jobs.  Long gone and mostly forgotten is the age in which humans were computers even
though we still tend our gardens, few of us look up logarithms in tables.

The well-paying available jobs have been due to either labor unions restricting certain jobs via
a cartel or have been ones that use education and intelligence such as high paying CEO
positions.  Managers, engineers, physicians and lawyers have traditionally been well paying
jobs in America.   

Let us take the job of physician as an example of a job that is traditionally performed by a

The human does a better job of interacting with a human patient.  (Bedside manner.)
The human must memorize a lot of facts and names of parts of the human body. (They say
typically a doctor must memorize 100,000 facts.)
The human physician that can do the above is not usually also good at logic.
Kahneman and Tversky showed that most Harvard Medical School graduates could not
correctly answer a question having to do with the chances of someone having an illness given
a certain rate of false positive results by the medical testing equipment.  If I ask an biomedical
engineer, I get the correct answer and if I answer a doctor, the answer is usually incorrect.
The human physician is not typically very good at cleaning her hands.  The nurses typically
do a better job.  The doctors feel that they are “too important” to have to perform such menial
tasks.  This conflict of “I must clean my hands” and “I am important and shouldn’t have to do
menial jobs” means that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

Perhaps what are needed in medicine are more robots.  Robots certainly have superior
memories to humans both because they learn faster and also because they have better memory
retention.  The medical testing equipment should print out both the diagnosis and the
probability that the patient actually has the disease given the prevalence in the community
and the rate of false positives.  Improved pattern recognition of X-rays should be possible using
modern robots.

Since most medical care doesn’t require much invention or conceptualization, it may well be
the next area to computerize.  Another reason to computerize it is that medical care is such a
large part of our expenses.