Who’s afraid of bots?

My Dad is the classic late adopter.He waits until a technology is mainstream and nearly everyone around him is using it before he adopts. Giventhat he now owns and uses a computer, an iPad and, most recently, an iPhone, I have started to wonder what computing technology will emerge that is equally transformative.

A recent Business Insider article claims that the computer industry moves in waves, with a “convergence of favorable economics and technical advances” driving a new wave every 10 to 15 years. I witnessed three of these waves, starting with what the Business Insider article refers to as the “PC revolution” in the 1980’s. This revolution spawned companies such as Apple and Microsoft and challenged established computer companies such as IBM.

The second wave of technological change began in 1990’s when the Internet moved from the universities and research institutes into the mainstream. Fueled by an established base of personal computers and the advent of the world wide web, Internet use exploded during the late 1990’s. This ubiquitous and inexpensive communications platform disrupted many industries, particularly those that relied on physical media that could be easily digitized or physical points of presence for the distribution of goods and services.

Over the past decade advances in miniaturization and wireless communication technologies transformed computing and Internet access from activities that could only take place in select locations to ones that take place anywhere, anytime. This third wave of computing, one often referred to as the “mobile revolution”, has quickly become an integral part of our lives.

The next wave of computing will take advantage of the infrastructure established during the first three waves along with the large, established base of users who, like my Dad, own at least one computing device and who access the Internet through these devices on a daily basis.

According to Vinod Khosla, Sun Microsystems co-founder, “there have been and will continue to be multiple big technology revolutions, but the most impactful on human society may be the one that finally builds systems with judgment and decision-making capability more sophisticated and nuanced than trained human judgment.”

While Mr. Khosla conceded in a November 2014 Forbes editorial that “any one software program may not do everything a human brain can do, he asserts:

“Specialized programs will likely makedecisions and predictions in their domain better than most trained humans. Many, if not most, domains will be well covered bysuch programs.”

Dr. Bertalan Mesko, the Medical Futurist, offers a similar perspective in a recent blog post, noting that while “we have not yet reached the state of ‘real’ AI (artificial intelligence)” … it is ready to sneak into our lives without any great announcement or fanfare.”

As an example of what is possible, Dr. Mesko cites a British application that helps people appeal parking tickets. This application successfully appealed 64% of quarter million parking tickets in both London and New York.

No one term seems to have emerged for this next technological wave. Some analystshave referred to it as “machine learning”while others use terms such as “artificial intelligence”. The Business Insider article to which I referred earlier notes that “none of these terms capture how widespread and roundbreaking this revolution will be” and suggests the term “robot revolution” is more appropriate. According to this article, the robot revolution will be “characterized by dozens of devices working on your behalf, invisibly, all the time, to make yourmife more convenient.”

In a blog post on the Medical Futurist website entitled “Artificial Intelligence Will  Redesign Healthcare”, Dr. Bertalan Mesko notes this next wave of computing “could organize patient routes or treatment plans better, and also provide physicians with literally all the information they need to make a good decision.” Several examples cited in the blog post include:

  • Google Deepmind Health project that is using artificial intelligence to mine the data in patient medical records to provide better and faster health services. In its initial phase, Google is working with the Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to improve eye treatment.
  • IBM is applying its Watson artificial intelligence technology to identify the most appropriate cancer treatment plans for a patient. Watson for Oncology analyzes the meaning and context of structured and unstructured data in clinical notes and reports, and combines the insight gleaned from this analysis with attributes from the patient’s file as well as clinical expertise and external research.
  • Babylon, a British online medical consultation and health service, launched an application which offers a medical artificial intelligence consultation based on personal medical history and common medical knowledge. The recently launched application checks user reported symptoms against a database of diseases using speech recognition. After taking into account the patient’s history and circumstances, Babylon offers an appropriate course of action.

Not everyone enthusiastically embraces the promise of this next wave of computing. Vinod Khosla suggests that machine learning technologies might surpass humans in both intelligence and knowledge relevant to perform a particular job, thereby rendering human employees unnecessary. Mr. Khosla worries that “the machine learning technology revolution will lead to increasing income disparity, and disparity beyond a certain point will lead to social unrest.”

Others such as noted physicist Stephen Hawking and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk fear that the artificial intelligence technology will become so sophisticated that it will try to take over our lives. An unabashed technology booster, I must confess that the implications of this next technology wave has given me pause to reconsider my position. Perhaps,as the Medical FuturistS suggests, we need to create ethical standards and consider gradual development of this next technological wave.

Do you agree that the “robot revolution” is the next wave in computing? If so, do you have any concerns about its impact? Please share your thoughts with me at michael.martineau@avenant.ca or on my blog at ehealthmusings.ca

One response to “Who’s afraid of bots?

  1. Interest blog topic Mike! Seems to me that the next wave could be AI or VR. Then again, we weren’t that good at predicting previous technology revolutions so who knows what might the next one be! Looking forward to experience it however.

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