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One of the many future benefits of robots will be a dramatic reduction in healthcare costs. In the near term, medical robots will be little more than search engines with excellent eyesight. They will look at your wounds, ask questions about how you feel and then use the Internet to determine a diagnosis and treatment strategy, just as a human doctor does.

We're already in the early part of that era. I handle the majority of my medical questions on the Internet now. Last week, for example, when my friend had a bad encounter with a sea urchin, I texted him a link about how to treat it before the spines were even removed. Ten years ago, before my smartphone was so smart, that injury might have required a trip to the emergency room just to be sure we were doing things right. Instead, he self-treated, with some help from the Internet, and the local healthcare system avoided the expense.



Now imagine a future in which household robots are the norm. Your personal robot has far better eyesight than you, incredible pattern recognition for diagnosing problems, and potentially more manual dexterity than you. Your robot might have a keen sense of smell, and it might hear so well that it can detect your pulse. I can imagine all household robots coming equipped with medical sensors as standard equipment, including everything from blood oxygen sensors to shock paddles. Someday the household robot might be capable of handling 95% of all medical problems.

I can also imagine a time when the typical home has a medication printer, meaning it can print medicine on demand. I can imagine - and this is the interesting part - that properly certified robots might be able to operate these machines whereas humans would not be licensed to do so. The robot could be programmed to only use the medication printer for legitimate reasons whereas humans would be more inclined print Oxycontin for recreational use. I predict that someday robots will have superior rights to humans in specific areas of life because robots can be trusted (programmed) and humans cannot.

I'm assuming in this scenario that future robots are more hack-proof than computers today. Perhaps someday robots will recognize hack-attacks by noticing changes in their own behavior, the same way a human feels a cold coming on.  And while I accept the truism that anything can be hacked, I think robots will still be safer than humans when it comes to controlling dangerous drugs.

So far I've only discussed health problems that can be handled at home. But I can imagine a day when robots are the only working surgeons because of their superior knowledge, speed, skill, and dexterity. If a robot can perform a surgery twice as fast as a human, I would think the trauma on the patient would be much less. In the long run, I can't imagine human surgeons competing with surgical robots.

The first surgical robots might cost tens-of-millions. But if a robot can work 24-hours per day without breaks, and robot prices drop with volume, robot surgeons will quickly become competitive with human surgeons who earn big paychecks while working only a third of the day. The biggest savings from robots might be an end to human errors and the resulting reduction in medical insurance premiums, assuming robots make fewer bad decisions.

I will go so far as to predict that someday it will be illegal for a human to practice medicine because robots will be so much more reliable. In the long transition period, which has already started and will last another twenty years, humans will be in charge of what the technology does. Eventually those roles will reverse because technology will be so much more reliable than humans. Future generations will be appalled that humans were ever allowed to perform invasive surgery on other humans.

Robots are the budget wildcard for the next generation. There's a good chance it won't matter how much national debt we pile up today so long as robot technology keeps improving. At some point the real cost of healthcare, energy, construction, transportation, farming, and just about every other basic expense will fall by 90% as robots get involved.  It would be absurd to assume we know anything about the economy in thirty years. Nothing will look the same.

Another wildcard in healthcare is nutrition science. I think we'll reach a point in which we cut medical problems by a third just by improving our food choices. You can already see a movement in that direction. And once your house robot starts handling your meal preparation, expect big improvements in your nutrition.

I also think we will see a more aggressive application of what you might call doctor-assisted suicide via pain suppression. It will probably remain illegal in most of the United States for a doctor to help a patient kill himself directly, but it won't be illegal to aggressively treat pain, and a side-effect of high levels of morphine, for example, is that it speeds up the inevitable while rendering the patient unconscious. For all practical purposes, aggressive pain treatment and doctor-assisted suicide has become the same thing. Your doctor can legally flip the kill switch on your brain via pain meds. And so long as the patient has a medical directive in place that specifies no feeding tubes, the body will follow. End-of-life medical costs will come down without much media attention or fanfare. Society's perfect balance is to keep doctor-assisted suicide technically illegal while at the same time it is commonplace. Legal loopholes aren't always bad.

So don't worry about medical costs in thirty years.  By then the phrase "going to the doctor" will sound like a quaint phrase from the past, like churning butter.

 
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Jan 11, 2013
Not so sure of robots... A few years back I had a muscle spasm on my lower back. It was so painful I couldn't walk. I toughed it out for 3 days before I decided to see a doctor. After getting to the hospital, I was placed in a small room to wait for a physician assistant to look at my back. I waited 20 minutes or so, While still in the same amount of pain I was in the day before. While I was laying on my back on the table, I heard the door open. I look up, and see this gorgeous PA walk in. I then get up trying not look too much like a wuss and told her what had happened. She then has me do some movements to make sure it wasn't a herniated disk , and then pulls my shirt up and pokes my back a little. At the moment after poking me, my back all the sudden felt better... It was so strange... But I think having her touch me helped relax the muscle that was spazing out...

I don't think a robot could do that.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 10, 2013
[ liability insurance is no longer needed as you just tell the victim of the errors that will happen to sue the robot manufacturer instead.]

So the liability cost is built into the cost of the robot. Escaping liability cost is not that simple.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 10, 2013
i'm still keeping my doctor, but if my house robot can do everything you say, emit a huggable frequency of IR, and have a huggable physical form, i'm in.
 
 
Jan 10, 2013
"1 How does this train of thought comply with the fact that the explosion of healthcare cost is for a great deal due to new technology being used? (Think mri-scan)"
A large part of that rising cost is staffing cost, and liability insurance. With robots performing the procedures, staff cost gets less (1 service mech with a highschool education and some on the job training can replace a dozen doctors) and liability insurance is no longer needed as you just tell the victim of the errors that will happen to sue the robot manufacturer instead.

"lthough I agree that people will be going to the doctor less as computer programs are developed to help assess easily diagnosed ailments. "

Books have existed to do just that for decades, and now websites. All it does is give more fuel to hypochondriacs, give them more diseases to self-diagnose (I know, my aunt was one, until she died of a real condition everyone ignored because they didn't believe her until she literally dropped dead on the kitchen floor).

" use the Internet to determine a diagnosis and treatment strategy, just as a human doctor does. "

A qualified doctor has a lot of knowledge gained from years of training and practical experience, he's not going to browse wikipedia for random diseases until he finds one that matches the open symptoms a patient shows, like a machine would do.

"True. When unemployment gets up above 25-30% the national debt will not be as big a concern. "

It already isn't, if the government is to be believed. And maybe they're right, given that whatever is done to reduce it it won't matter and only influence the rate of growth of the debt.

"My only quibble is that I'm not convinced we will need robot surgeons."

For run of the mill procedures like cataract surgery, those were experimented with in the USSR and other communist countries decades ago, with some success.
Of course if you don't care if the patient actually gets cured as a result of the procedure, you don't really care if the procedure takes differences between individual patients into account rather than just going through the motions like the machine it is.


 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 9, 2013
When something like the sea urchin spines happens to me, my first reaction is to scream like a little girl and cry.

Your friends first reaction was "wow, I gotta get a picture of this!"

I can't see myself ever allowing a robot to work on me, especially if the OS is from Microsoft.
 
 
Jan 9, 2013
Thirty years ago, robot surgeons were already expected to come within a decade of then. Today, we have robots that can fold towels. You say thirty years from now robots will be performing surgeries, I say in thirty years they might be parking attendants. Although I agree that people will be going to the doctor less as computer programs are developed to help assess easily diagnosed ailments.
 
 
Jan 9, 2013
Today's Wall Street Journal had an opinion article along the same theme.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 9, 2013
[ When it finds a Martian microbe it simply sequences the alien DNA and sends the data to earth for reconstruction.]

Off topic, but why would we expect Martian life to have DNA? All life on earth has it, but if life arose independently on Mars, it seems more likely it would evolve its own mechanism for the roles of DNA.
 
 
Jan 9, 2013
Tricorder (as in Star Trek) X-Prize:
www.qualcommtricorderxprize.org

This has nothing to do with the above X-Prize, but I read an interesting idea of how a robotic spacecraft could find life on Mars and send it back to Earth: When it finds a Martian microbe it simply sequences the alien DNA and sends the data to earth for reconstruction.

So your future household doctor robot could do the same thing if it finds a new flu virus or a new antibiotic-resistance bacterium in your body. It could send the DNA sequence to the Center for Disease Control and they'd use their mainframe AI tools to come up with a solution, which would be sent back.

Your robot (and other doctor robots that belong to people you've had recent contact with) would "print" the solution and administer it ASAP. This "nipping contagion in the bud" would be a new paradigm in flu control. No mass inoculations would be necessary.

 
 
Jan 9, 2013
There has been evidence for a number of years that dogs can detect certain types of cancers by smell alone, so I think it only makes sense that machines be developed to recognize the smell of cancer. In addition to everyone having a thermometer in their home, some day we'll all have a cancer sniffer that we use on our family monthly.
My company already makes scent testing devices used at airports to check for explosives and drugs. I expect travelers would find being wanded less offensive if they knew they were also getting a free cancer screening.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 9, 2013
Yuck. This is not a future I would want to inhabit. The vision is taking the mechanization of human health to the extreme. I like health to be founded upon care: self-care and the care of knowledgeable professionals. Please see the beautiful video "A Doctor's Touch" on TED.com.
 
 
Jan 9, 2013
I can see the robot doctors being a good idea, at least to some degree.

Robot chefs? Not so much. Unless the stuff they make tastes great, I don't think people will use them that much. The only way most people will think things taste great is with too much sugar, salt, and fats/oils. They'd be good for restaurants and fast food joints though.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 9, 2013
Two thoughts:

1 How does this train of thought comply with the fact that the explosion of healthcare cost is for a great deal due to new technology being used? (Think mri-scan)

2 This might very well work. All that is necessary for this is that the people of various automation en medical technology firms and some government institutions work together in a coordinated way and come to workable compromises in an acceptable timeframe. (I am parafrasing here, but that's from one of your books or comics where you are weaseling your way out of the responsibility for a project).
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 9, 2013
'Incredible pattern recognition' is exactly the area where biological systems still trump software hands-down. Even for a well defined problem space like OCR, the error rate of dedicated systems still fall far short of most literate humans. Pattern recognition in a diagnostic context is essentially open-ended: you need to know what questions to ask. While software is amazing at recalling huge numbers of facts, the judgment of when to prune the search tree, and when to dig deeper is still hard to automate. Granted, statistical methods have advanced by leaps and bounds: but meatware still is quite a bit more accurate for most tasks.

That is not to say that medical device technology including robots won't play a huge role in the 21st century. But our ability to automate pattern recognition is on the 'con' side, not the 'pro'.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 9, 2013
I have one quibble with this concept - Research.

Robot Doctors can be programmed to carry out any of the routine tasks currently carried out by everyday GPs, surgeons etc. But I don't think they'll ever have the imagination required to carry out research into new remedies or treatments on their own - they can help in the testing, but they won't come up with novel ideas.

And without humans going through the stage of learning and performing everyday medecine, where are the medical researchers of 50 years hence going to come from?
 
 
Jan 9, 2013
being a technological modernist must be a neat feeling. nonetheless, i'm not buying. i don't deny the possibility or even probability that this sort of technology could come into existence in the near term given the right set of !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ i deny the possibility that the incredibly complex infrastructure required for all of this to develop will develop/continue in a stable enough way for this kind of technology to actually come into existence. last i checked, the world was still run by people who don't really like or trust each other, and they don't seem to be doing a very good job of generating stability. i predict that every step along the path from here to adorable-robot-printing-me-an-asperin-as-i-land-my-hover-car-on-my-roof-because-my-car-told-it-my-hands-were-warm will be obstructed by a multiplicity of human forces more powerful than the forces that want to make that adorable robot a reality.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 8, 2013
I saw that health robot thingie in that historical documentary "Prometheus".

If you are a girl, get the girl version, or else you might not be able to get that gestating monster out of your womb in time.
 
 
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 8, 2013
[Robots are the budget wildcard for the next generation. There's a good chance it won't matter how much national debt we pile up today so long as robot technology keeps improving.]

True. When unemployment gets up above 25-30% the national debt will not be as big a concern.
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
@danbert8

[Think of the unemployment though! Robots will put all those people out of jobs, and then what will the people do?]

Why, the jobs that the robots don't want to do of course.

Dave Lister: The only reason they don't give this work to the scutters is they have a better union.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 8, 2013
In spite of nightly forays to the barn to milk the goats - and occasional adventures churning said milk into butter- I'm still with you on this. My only quibble is that I'm not convinced we will need robot surgeons. I'm looking forward to the day that we get so clever about manipulating gene function that we can just reprogram our own bodies to heal themselves.

On another note: Anyone else hear Andrei Codrescu's voice when reading Raskolnikov's comments?
 
 
 
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