In 2011, people witnessed an interesting competition on the television quiz show Jeopardy. It featured the two best players in the history of the show, Ken Jennings, who had the longest unbeaten run of 74 winning appearances, and Brad Rutter, who had earned the biggest prize of $3.25 million. Their opponent was a huge computer with over 750 servers and a cooling system stored at a location so as not to disturb the players. The room–sized machine was made by IBM and named after the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson. It did not smile or show emotion, but it kept on giving good answers. At the end, Watson won the game with $77,147 leaving Rutter and Jennings with $21,600 and $24,000 respectively.

Cognitive computers have been developing rapidly over the last few years following three technological breakthroughs. One is cheap parallel computation due to a new kind of chip called a graphics processing unit (GPU). The second one is accessible big data due to massive databases, web cookies, wearable devices and decades of search results. The third one is building better algorithms due to the services of Netflix, Google, Amazon and the others.

From Stethoscope to Cognitization

People, especially in medicine, do not like change. Moreover, after many of my talks, physician colleagues ask me whether artificial intelligence (AI) might replace them in their jobs and whether algorithms can eventually become better at making diagnoses. Both will happen but the job of physicians will transform into a new role because of that. They finally have more time to deal with patients instead of chasing the information they would need. They will get access to that immediately. Cognitive computers will help physicians diagnose the same way stethoscope could change the medical profession from the early 19th century when René Laennec developed a wooden tube that worked like an ear trumpet to listen to cardiac and lung sounds.

The use of AI does not have to lead to the loss of the human touch. In 1997, IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue could beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning chess grand master that time. He said he could have performed better if he had access to the same databases as Deep Blue. So later, freestyle matches were organized in which supercomputers could play against human chess players assisted by AI (they were called human/AI centaurs). Guess what! In 2014 in a Freestyle Battle, the AI chess players won 42 games, but centaurs won 53 games. The best potential pair is a human with technology. This is the only balance that can lead to a positive future with more and more disruptive innovations including ever-improving cognitive computing but an also ever-improving human intelligence and wisdom. This is the winning combination.

If AI can improve a chess player, it can improve a physician as well.

What even the most acclaimed professors know cannot match cognitive computers. As the amount of information they accumulate grows exponentially, the assistance of computing solutions in medical decisions is imminent. While a physician can keep a few dozen study results and papers in mind, IBM’s Watson can process millions of pages in seconds. This remarkable speed has led to trying Watson in oncology centers to see how helpful it is in making treatment decisions in cancer care. We need to prepare for its use but IBM has taken the first steps. Watson does not answer medical questions, but based on data it comes up with the most relevant and likely outcomes. Physicians make the final call. Computer assistance can only facilitate the work of physicians, not replace it. Just like how stethoscope did.

Read more stories about how artificial intelligence can impact medical decision-making in the new book,The Guide to the Future of Medicine.


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