by Dr Makini McGuire-Brown
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, several influential people in our world have taken the time to reflect on the lessons that we can and should learn from this global emergency. I’m not going to talk about the total lack of preparedness and the lessons that so many governments around the world should learn from, though I hope that they do. I’m also not going to talk about the sheer selfishness of some human beings that was exposed by the crisis because it is far more productive and positive to keep those in mind that worked and are working assiduously, to ensure that when we come out on the other side of this disease, a sociologically and economically healthy society still exists. One in which we still have elderly, sick and people that eat too much, smoke and drink too much!
Although using COVID-19 as a purge for the old, sick and those with an unhealthy lifestyle is horrific within my moral compass there are those that may disagree or simply have no moral compass. It seems that everyone wants to focus on the economy so maybe the better argument to put forth is an economic one. Many in their 60s, the at-risk age group, have more disposable income than all of you old-people-hating, asymptomatic carriers. Risking infecting them is not beneficial to you because for an economy to flourish we don’t only need the – all important, can’t stay at home, young, ivy-league professionals who are still paying off student loans but the – I’m old and unhealthy but I will spend my money and enjoy my life until my time comes. Of course there are many classifications of people in between these two extremes but I will stick to the extremes because the all or nothing attitude is the only thing some seem to understand.
The older age group also provide child care as grandparents, they volunteer to help the sick and homeless and others in need because they have more free time and for the smart ones among us who can appreciate the value of wisdom, they have it in abundance to share. Additionally, while most that live an unhealthy lifestyle must take responsibility for it, humanity must dictate that they deserve a chance to improve and make their contribution to society. While we are on the topic of humanity, which is proving difficult for humans to portray at this time, let’s apply the concept to another topic; that of artificial intelligence (AI) and medicine.
As technology becomes more sophisticated and the concepts of Machine Learning and Deep Learning begin to penetrate every industry, there is varying sentiment. ‘Techies’ see only the best and traditionalists see the worst. In its simplest form, the tug-of-war that exists is between accuracy and reliability on one end of the rope and judgment and flexibility on the other.
I will digress a bit to share a bit about my background. I am a physician who has worked in a limited resource setting serving patients of varying educational and socio-economic backgrounds. I also have an MBA in which I focused on health industry management and conducted individual research into health and accountability. I focused on the metrics used to evaluate health services and the flaws therein. The literature search unearthed many things but at the core was this same tug-of-war. The lack of appreciation for medicine as both an art and a science; it requires accuracy and reliability just as much as it requires judgment and flexibility. While a computer will always have more accuracy and reliability, human judgement and flexibility are invaluable. If we accept that these two ends of the rope are equally important then the need for artificial intelligence to work synergistically with human intelligence is unquestionable. Statements such as “AI will replace physicians” should be discarded.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the need for synergy perfectly. A novel virus means that we know nothing for certain. Therefore, to use the popular phrase, “on the front lines” many decisions are being made purely through judgment and flexibility. Without the mountains of data needed to make AI accurate and reliable, human judgment is saving lives. Human flexibility is allowing for creations like drive through testing centres. Is human judgment infallible? Surely not. With increased data and using scientific methods, AI is helping by using its power of accurate and reliable data processing and hopefully making the route to prevention and/or treatment faster than ever. Without human intelligence we would be unable to save lives with absolutely no certain data and without AI the route to a vaccine/drug would likely be longer. This pandemic is just one example but the truth is that medicine at its core embodies this need for balance.
There are so many reasons for human beings to learn from nature, where everything plays its part for the benefit of the whole. In the context of AI and medicine/physicians we should seek to emulate the anemone and the clownfish instead of the Indian Cobra and the rat; mutualism not predation.
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