Robots: Not just for kids any more

Robots: Not just for kids any more

Years ago, my brother and I shared a metal robot with moveable arms and legs. This plaything belonged to the same fantasy realm as Barbie dolls and Power Rangers, and the idea that it might one day be a colleague was not only unfathomable, it was laughable. Fast-forward two decades to the present day, and robots have a very real role in medical care. At present, hundreds of thousands of surgeries are performed each year using robotic technology[1]. This past June, two Belgian hospitals began employing robotic receptionists that can understand up to twenty languages[2]. In Japan, robots have been used to lift and transfer patients from their hospital beds[3].  And right here in America, Watson, the same robot that won Jeopardy in 2011, is being put through his medical residency in the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center[4]. Just a few months ago, Watson, who has never experienced the years of grueling drudgery to which we have subjected ourselves as medical students, correctly identified the cancer of a patient whose diagnosis had stumped physicians across the globe[5]. As humankind continues to create technologies with the potential to outsmart their creators, it’s hard not to wonder whether we, as doctors, may soon become obsolete.

While mulling over this very question, I saw a young patient who needed blood work. Upon finding out that she was being sent to the lab, the young girl was filled with sheer terror. After much crying, kicking, and screaming, her mother eventually managed to drag her down to the lab. After we had seen our next patient, the doctor with whom I was working decided to go down to the lab to check on our very petrified young patient. At that moment, I was reminded that our ability to care for people in the most trying times of their lives makes us as doctors unique from most other professionals. As doctors, we will have the privilege of making human connections with each of our patients. Robots can digest huge amounts of information, stay up to date on the most current medical practices, and make correct diagnoses in puzzling patient histories, but they will never eclipse physicians because they do not have a reliable set of ethics, nor do they have the shared human experience that underlies the doctor-patient relationship.

The prospect of artificial intelligence in medical practice may be heralded by some as a major scientific breakthrough, but it is important not to hyperbolize the role of robots on a medical team. Though the prospect of finding forms of artificial intelligence in your local hospital is becoming increasingly likely as time passes, many of us can only speculate what it would be like to work alongside a robotic colleague. No matter what, artificial intelligence should only be viewed as a physician aid, not a physician replacement. While it is true that forms of artificial intelligence may certainly help us with diagnoses and complex surgical procedures, these tasks are only one small part of the care that we as physicians have agreed to provide to our patients. The other part of this care is the genuine concern that we show to our patients. Robots may be more knowledgeable and more hardworking than some human doctors, but until a robot can sense human suffering, walk down to a lab, and hold the hand of a little girl who is scared senseless by the idea of having her blood drawn, they are still incapable of providing the most important medical service of all: empathy.

Featured image:
robot! by Crystal