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AHA Examines if Technology Will Make Doctors Obsolete

Jennie Brian

A pressing question making its way more frequently into the public discourse is how technology might lead to large scale unemployment. Robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning etc.
All terms that some see as signifying the downfall of human labor. These and other weighty matters were discussed at a recent forum held by the newly launched Center for Health Technology and Innovation (CHTI). The Center is a new initiative spearheaded by the American Heart Association (AHA).

If the term "technological innovation" doesn't come to the forefront of your mind when you think of the AHA, that may soon change if the forum is any indication. Because despite all the press that certain diseases get, the fact of the matter is that heart disease is still the number one killer of Americans. The CHTI was formally announced by the AHA's Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown, amid a crowd of top leaders in medicine, research, technology and investment. Over the span of two days, all sorts of interesting topics were discussed.

Will Human Doctors Become Illegal?

One of the most interesting discussions included the famed VC Vinod Khosla, who raised an interesting question. He posited that within 15 years, self driving cars may eventually make human drivers illegal on some roads due to the eventual superior safety of the new vehicles. Along that same line of thought, Khosla wondered aloud if technology will eventually make human doctors illegal. The question isn't so farfetched. Imagine a computer, perhaps similar to IBM's Watson, with the ability to accurately diagnose a disease with 97% accuracy. If human physicians are only 80% accurate, for example, wouldn't it make more sense to let computers rather than humans do the diagnosing?

To reassure the crowd after he raised that unsettling point, Khosla noted a historical example. As airplanes became more complex to operate and fly, accidents increased. With the invention of autopilot, the modern day human pilot is relegated to operating the aircraft during takeoff, landing and course corrections or emergencies. Similarly, the human physician's role may not be eliminated, but simply changed. Instead of being engaged in busy work, advanced computers may do the heavy lifting when it comes to gathering information and samples, then producing a possible diagnosis. The physician is freed up to spend more time with the patient relationship.

What are Some Moonshots in Health Tech?

There are numerous fields with the potential for exciting breakthroughs in health technology. One is artificial intelligence. As of now, the current state of artificial intelligence is still relegated to using a rules-based system which is one reason IBM's Watson isn't as effective in oncology. But as AI systems become more powerful and incorporate context, nuances and inferences into their program, the potential for life-changing improvements is real. A company like Lark is able to use full AI coaches to interact and direct its app user towards concrete goals.

Verily, another panel participant at the CHTI forum, is Alphabet's (Google) Life Science division. They take a multidisciplinary approach to health care and tackling diseases. One exciting product in the pipeline is a smart contact lens that will make it easier for those with diabetes to monitor glucose levels. "Smart" products in ever-shrinking form factors will change the way diseases are discovered and managed.

To stimulate innovation from the private and public sectors, organizations such as XPRIZE use the tried and true method of large awards to pit competitors against each other with the goal of achieving massive breakthroughs. One example is their $10 million prize for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, with the winner to be announced in early 2017. Star Trek fans will recognize the fictional Tricorder device as a do-it-all handheld which could aid in diagnosis and treatment. If XPRIZE has its way, science fiction will soon become reality. Interestingly, Grant Company at XPRIZE noted that in some cases companies will spend more than the actual award amount. The fame and notoriety that comes with winning an XPRIZE apparently exceeds the monetary award. Even more encouraging, XPRIZE teams that didn't win will sometimes band together with the winner to cooperate towards achieving the goal.

From AI to robotics to smart devices to handheld Tricorders, the future of health technology seems brighter than ever. Having an established non-profit such as the American Heart Association helping to bridge the gap between the marketplace and clinical research should facilitate more effective paths towards tech innovation.

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