How IBM’s Watson Could Impact Medicine

I was asked to write an op-ed for the Washington Post on how Watson (the computer that won on Jeopardy!) could impact medicine. I think it could eventually be quite transformative.

You can read it here


Mark Lewis, a computer science professor at Trinity University, thinks I might be too conservative in my projections for Watson’s future impact on medicine.

My feeling has been that in areas like medicine and self-driving cars/trucks the technology may run ahead of social acceptance. Also there are some powerful groups that might lobby hard to slow progress (AMA, Teamsters, etc.).

How long will it be, for example, before society would trust a machine to independently prescribe drugs? (Possible future Kindle bestseller: How to Get Watson to Give You Vicoden: The Insider’s Guide). But, then again, which would be harder: gaming a smart computer to get a prescription, or just finding a doctor that will prescribe on demand?

I’ve heard from a number of people who, like Mark, think things are likely to progress faster than we might expect in these areas. Let us know what you think in comments.

8 thoughts on “How IBM’s Watson Could Impact Medicine

  1. And yet more jobs down the drain….

    My local hospital (in the UK) has started replacing pharmacists with a robotic sorting device…. it makes you kind of wonder what jobs will be left in the future as everything is getting automated and if not automated outsourced.

  2. Very good article in this morning’s Washington Post….

    I think Mark Lewis and others may be right as far as the rate of technical progress is concerned, though even there we should remember that, historically, artificial intelligence has been slow to deliver on its original (optimistic) expectations. But technology is not the only thing that will have to change. You mention self-driving cars, an example I’ve thought about. I’d guess that getting the technology to work will take less time than putting the necessary legal and cultural changes in place.

    The replacement of routine mental labor by machines is an issue we really ought to think about. It isn’t new — if my memory serves, Joseph Weizenbaum raised it in his book, “Computer Power and Human Reason”.

  3. I think the social acceptance part will be easy. It won’t be slowed by special interests for long if Watson can diagnose and prescribe treatment for very low cost. This kind of advancement could really help bring healthcare to the poor. I am continually blown away at the future that is unfolding. I first read “The Singularity Is Near” several years ago and I now spend a lot of my waking hours looking for the signs. This is a big one.

  4. I’ve been working in software automation since 1985. The technology to automate does seem to be accelerating — it’s a good thing. It will free us from laboring like mules once and for all. Medicine, like law, has such high costs that it’s a prime target to automate. How about you? Would you rather be treated by an unemotional robot or a bored HMO doctor, flirting with the nurses? And if the AMA or Teamsters start to slow progress, then it’s time for a technocracy to accelerate technology.

  5. 1950: “Ok, here’s how we make age-of-abundance utopia. We just take all those ironing, ankle-biter watching single moms, educate them, and double our workforce. With majority two-income homes, all that extra productivity will erase all individual and national debt problems, men health care for all, upper-middle class lifestyles, and everyone will have tons more free time!”

    1970: “Ok, here’s what we do. We ship all the manufacturing jobs off to 20-hour working wage slaves, McDonaldize our remaining workplaces, and automate everything else we can. With all that extra efficiency, savings productivity, people will all be working 8 hour weeks, have on average 3 mansions each, take two carribean trips per year, and spend our afternoons reading the classics and practicing archery in the meadows!”

    2011: Average family working twice as many hours for half the living standard, millions can’t afford houses, 1/2 the country uninsured or underinsured, abysmal living standard and all-time-high inequality. Average CEO pay: up several thousand percent.

    Conclusion: increased automation and productivity != to increased well being. Gross Domestic Product != to Gross Happiness Quotient.

    2011: “Ok, here’s what we do. We automate half the jobs in the country and with all that extra productivity…”

    Bet your ass the gains will go to the Ownership Class while the “99%” gets to rip each other’s throat out for the dwindling remains of the social safety net, chainsawed to bailout the banksters.

  6. I would expect you would find agreement on your thesis from all the former decision theory researchers I worked with at Microsoft who as it happened were also medical doctors. It is hard to dispute the observation that the exponential growth of productivity is vastly outpacing the (at best) linear rates of increased consumption. The systemic risk to the consumption engine is a slow walk but we seem to have been going at it since the 90s as evidenced by the flat rate of job growth since then. Your book provides a thought provoking metaphor to model what is going on here- The purchasing power river has companies along its bank that are withdrawing substantially more purchasing power than are returning in the form of lower cost products and employee wages.

    I am very interested in what further potential solutions you have run across. Here is one of the two I have been talking about with my associates:

    What if purchasing power as a public resource was managed with a market mechanism that provided disincentives for net withdrawals of purchasing power? For example, assume the yearly consumption of the average middle class family was calculated and the company does not have enough employees with the wages to balance that inflow of capital. When the imbalance becomes egregious, there is a monetary penalty- for the sake of simplicity, let’s say the penalty is a progressively higher corporate tax rate, so that at some point the business either figures out jobs for enough workers or gives up any further automation. What this does is make explicit the rule that Henry Ford intuitively grasped. The implementation is an orthogonal subject but I would think it would rely on an arms length mechanism like taxation rather than micromanaging regulation mechanisms.

    I have been throwing rocks at this particular approach to see if it will collapse and I wonder if you would care to join in. Here are the objections I have posed and the responses I have to them.

    Objection1: Growth relies on venture capitalists taking risks on new ideas. They won’t be as willing to take those risks if the returns are capped as this scheme proposes to do. Answer: The cap is only on the domestic river. That is we are only concerned in regulating the balance between revenues from domestic consumption versus the returned purchasing power expressed as domestic price reduction and employment of US workers. This also has the benefit of provoking the corporation to have strong plans for competing in foreign markets. Global revenues often dwarf domestic revenues, so this will provide the substantial returns for venture capitalists that is vital for a vigorous entrepreneurial environment.

    Objection2: Depending on the business, the revenues could be huge, but there are substantial other costs such as research on future products 90% of which are not productized. These added costs are generally correlated with vigorous growth companies. The proposal only measures incoming purchasing power versus returned purchasing power, so keeping them in strict balance prevents revenue from getting directed towards expansion and further research, thereby retarding growth. Answer- the proposal could allow for set asides for research and expansion. These set asides would be substantial for startups. After say 5 years, the set asides are reduced to fixed amounts which may be adjusted by appeal to regulators. There is a disincentive to game the set asides (labeling other budget items as “research” or “expansion” to pump up the numbers) because to qualify for the reductions, the books on research and expansion budgets must be open to spot checks by regulators.

    Objection3: If this proposal were in place since the 20s, the percent of population involved in farming would not be 2%, but closer to the 25% it was in the 30s. How do we allow for progress in the kinds of jobs we do. The proposal does not allow for justifiable job destruction. Or do we think farming really ought to be done with hoes and rakes? Answer: For farming in particular the same answer as for Objection 1. Due to substantial international sales of American farm products, This may not be a satisfactory response for other industries, and if there are no other market based responses, it might be necessary to resort to more intrusive regulatory rulemaking for specific industries.

  7. I have to agree that you are way too conservative, Martin.

    inside of ten years Watson will likely have replaced millions of doctors because the insurance companies will give the public the option of “cheap automated doctor insurance” vs “expensive human doctor insurance”. Why? because the computer won’t bill them, allowing them to pocket far more of the customers cash. The computer will make fewer mistakes, lowering costs again. The computer will be able to determine “standards of care” that favor the insurers by making treatments in the most profitable manner for the insurance company. The rapacious greed of the corporation will want to get rid of all the human element as fast as possible to reap the greatest profit.

    The same goes for Law. Finance. Customer service reps of nearly every single kind. and as VR arrives, even replace store clerks with “Watson class” sales “bots”

    There is no level that is safe. and the inevitable 180 turn around of every successive level of the “middle class” that is disenfranchised from defending the “elite” to demanding “justice” as they join the ranks of “the poor and unemployed” is going to bring ever greater pressure on government to provide assistance that can only come from taxing the ever more wealthy 1% to provide for the other 99% Basically, they either begin assisting, or the 99% finally gets pissed off enough to mount their collective heads on pikes.

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