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Among Cyborgs, Droids and Robots – What the Future Holds for Us

Submitted by on October 25, 2013 – 8:07 PM




Almost a year ago, it was that ‘time’ of my life-the time when you’re drenched in ever mounting tension, anxiety and suffering from the case of good ol’ entry test fever. I was amongst the many students competing for a spot in med-school and while doing so many of us considered ‘other’ options and prospects in case of failure at the altar of all mighty medical.


In my search for different careers options, Bio-medical engineering caught my eye, and a part of me-a part that had watched way too many sci-fi movies conjured up a whole new world and impelled me to look at the brighter side; that if all else fails and you don’t become the doctor in the shining new lab-coat, you can always built a little doctor robot version of yours.

However lucrative the thought had sounded to me then, I nevertheless considered Medicine as my first priority. And now that, I have entered the field of medicine, spent my time gulping Guyton’s never ending garrulous-ness(frustrating out upon realizing there’s automated cell count while I spent time charging, focusing the hematocytometer)it has become much, much more limpid to me –the role that technology plays in the field.

From pharmaceuticals to diagnostics, from the labs to the Operation Theatres and to appointment schedules- the use of binary digits and Algorithms is taking over. The ‘leading’ healthcare units have the latest technology and are equipped with the most recent advancements in the fields. And as the clock ticks, the 21st century moves into a more advanced and a more technical era; with a push of a button you can diagnose yourself with brain tumor, arthritis, Alzheimer-all for the symptoms of the common cold, thanks to Dr. Google.

Prototype-doctors are out on the internet and “telemedicine” is on the rise. 3-D printers have begun bio-printing, paving new horizons for organ transplants. Bionics also shows tremendous potential. Innovation and change will go on hand to hand and further discoveries will continue.

Digital BP apparatus, digital steths, digital this digital that and it makes you wonder, will the ‘doctors’ be replaced with something digital too?

Machines are now working in the operation theatres all around the world (minus the third-world), one of these is the da Vinci Surgical System. These robotic surgeons have the precision, accuracy and results way more above that of average surgeon.

But then someone will raise the point that their numbers are still infinitesimal. In regards to that-in 1980, there were only 12 MRI machines on planet earth, their estimated number is now 25,000[1]. That’s a 2000-fold increase over a period of three decades and it’s the facts and figures like these that make the ‘techies’ give gloomy predictions about the future of doctors such as “Machines will replace 80 per cent of doctors”.

Some take the news lightly, while others think of a robotic apocalypse that will oust the doctors. Now we have to consider the fact that the robots in business aren’t the true robots-the ones having some sort of artificial intelligence, but still if they start performing all the medical procedures what role will the doctor be confined to play?

Robots possessing AI are a rare entity for now-a famous one is IBM’s Watson, with the first robotic surgery without any human assistance taking place in May 2006. And if somehow true AI does appear and evolve, will the machine be able to behave as a doctor?

It would, if the only purpose they served was diagnosis and treatment (though sadly enough, it is the scenario these days) but patient care, the healing touch, the messiah associated with the doctor can never be attributed to a machine. They won’t be able to face the moral and ethical dilemmas that are faced by the many practicing medicine.

And the process of ‘thinking’ that blesses us with a conscience shall never be performed by machines, not to mention that it will be bereft of all emotions. While on the other side, it might be that robots might not be able to carry out effective communication with the patients. The “human-error” would also diminish and they’ll be able to perform physical exams, procedures, treatments, history taking all-day all-night without having to chunk gallons of coffee!

Accuracy, technicality, objectivity, efficiency is what can be attributed to them. All in all, while some would consider robots as tools to enhance to the healthcare experience, others would take it as a replacement. The question still stands whether the doctor species would be altogether extinct in the near future(a future one simply cannot quantify) or will we have hybrid-techno-doctors savvy with both the latest tech and medicine, after all I-nurse and I-doctor don’t sound too ‘bad’ either. There’s a long road to go, keeping in view cost-effectiveness, error margins and other technical mumbo-jumbo that I have absolutely no clue about.

Some argue that medicine is algorithmic and some say it’s not, take out the secret ingredient ‘care or empathy’ and yes we would be left with algorithms. The character of Charlie Chaplin giving his closing speech in the movie “The Great Dictator” says, “Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men -machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts”.

This love for humanity is what drives many to the profession of medicine. Doctors of today are less concerned and least bothered about the patient and more about his condition, often overlooking that what made the profession so noble is also what will guarantee its survival.

About this author: Taymmia Ejaz is medical student enrolled in Army Medical College Rawalpindi,currently studying in first year. She can be reached at [email protected]


About this article: This article is competing for the JPMS International Medical Writing Contest 2013

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