Monday, July 13, 2015

Uncertain Health in an Insecure World – 48

Illigitimi Non Carborundum

When both Nature and the Harvard Business Review run cover stories on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic smart machines in the same week, those of us who are keenly interested in the future of medicine and the life sciences should pay close attention.

HBR (June 2015) highlighted the burgeoning business opportunities around the man-machine interface in articles titled “Beyond Automation” (to augmentation of human capabilities), “The Great Decoupling” (of digital technologies from the workforce), “The Self-Tuning Enterprise” (through algorithmic reinvention), and “When Your Boss Wears Metal Pants” (on thinking machines).  HBR editor Adi Ignatius opined on the inevitability of large-scale worker displacements, confiding that to fear the rise of the machines was reasonable, but essentially futile.

All that emotionality and creativity stuff… Just human failings in need of reverse engineering?

Nature (May 28, 2015), the international weekly journal of science, explained how an injured robot can get “Back on its Feet” by using intelligent trial & error machine learning algorithms to heal itself and get back on task. In another paper about “Robots That Can Adapt Like Animals”, the authors pointed to the fragility of robots in complex environments, especially when they are unable to right themselves by thinking ‘out of the box’. Of course, there’s an injury repair algorithm for fixing robot arm “joints broken in 14 different ways”.  Adaptation to such damage mimics a three-legged dog compensating by avoid painful or ineffective post-amputation behaviors. Balancing these unbridled technological advances, four top researchers shared their ethical concerns on societal risks from humans remotely controlling lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS, like drone bombers) and AI-informed robotic units operating on their own recognizance.

In the absence of NASA Mission Control… Just who is in charge of the mission?

While driving in to work, I tuned to the usually erudite albeit all-in National Public Radio show Tech Nation. Pediatric oncologist Dr. Daniel Kraft of Singularity University was breathlessly describing the endless ways that wearables (and yes insideables) will soon change medicine, once and forever. Dr. Kraft is a true believer in the quantified self and the flow of little data (“… digital exhaust coming off ourselves”) driving what he’s dubbed exponential medicine. He used a lot of jargon to explain the potential advantages of leveraging such digital health data to inform clinical trials (“… 90% of adults are not on a clinical trial”), predict-olitics (read analytics), telemedicine (for home otitis media checks), intelligent augmentation (not AI), and X-Prize tricoder devices in the “digital doctor’s bag”.

Such unbridled enthusiasm makes one think… Not just about what’s real, but what isn’t.

Dr. Kraft’s description of a pocket-sized digital ICU sounded scarily powerful, implicating an impending tectonic shift from traditional medicine to a new digital era of critical care.  When the “patient can touch their own data…” and connect it through “feedback loops to their families” and personal caregivers, offshore Nighthawk imaging and second opinion Skype consult services will be rendered obsolete.

I will never think about my pocket contents the same way again!

Silicon (Si) is one of the most common elements in Earth, abundant in sand. Once refined, pure silicon is the seed for ingots cut into wafers that become semiconductor chips. Silicon carbide, or carborundum, is a very hard substance used in granular form since 1893 to grind machinery.

One base element in two different chemical states, with two very different utilities.

Identical information can also be delivered in very different ways, with varied degrees of validity. 

My advice for interested listeners is “Illigitimi Non Carborundum”… Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

The deliberate development, careful field testing and steady adoption of new technologies is the necessary drudgery of global scientific progress.

The facts found in the top peer-reviewed literature and in the hyperbole of trade fair gurus is part of a healthy dialog towards such progress.

But they are not one and the same.

We in the Square remain wary of overt proselytism, especially when the message is delivered by those with the most to gain in the near term.


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