Would Commander Data be the best or worst doctor?

One of the most intriguing characters in the series “Star Trek, the Next Generation” was an android called Data. Interestingly, even though this Star Trek series was many centuries in the future, Data was unique for being the only sentient android around. I do not know if the writers fully considered the implications of this. Considering that Star Trek directly addressed many timely issues, I would not be surprised if there was a subliminal message in this representation of the future of artificial intelligence (AI).

Basically, if this android was unique in being sentient, and the Starship Enterprise was filled with super intelligent computers, the implication would be that AI never manifested self awareness even these many centuries in the future. For all of those who are concerned about the dangers of the “rise of the machines”, it is not inherently obvious that computers that simulate human intelligence would actually become self-aware. I will stop here before I get too far into the philosophy of whether being self-aware would make a difference, assuming AI achieved a perfect simulation of sentience.

The key point about Cmdr. Data is that he lacked one thing to become “a real boy”. He lacked emotion. His creator, depicted different times during the TV series, had the ability to give Data emotion via, what else but, an upgrade. And one of the Star Trek movies even deals with Data becoming an emotional being. But even without emotion, Data is shown to be an effective commander of a starship, a friend to other sentient beings, and even the owner of a pet dog.

Let’s take a step back into the present world. The following article describes a reality that most people are likely not aware of. To quote from this article:

The use of computers to create new stories with no help from human reporters is on the rise. So far these stories tend be analysis of financial reports, marketing news or short reports about the results of a sports game. This type of non-human reporting has been dubbed “robot journalism.” The Associated Press is one of the company’s using the computer software to create stories. They are now publishing 3,000 computer generated stories each quarter or 1,000 per month.

I was aware of the fact that computers were being used to generate news stories. I was not aware of the fact that so many news stories were being generated by present day computer systems. The fact that these stories can be generated by a “mindless” computer indicates that many news stories are intended to be pure fact, without an element of human emotion. Apparently, while there is endless room for editorializing sports events in the various worldwide newspapers and online sites, there is still a basic need for the presentation of simple and straightforward numbers, that clearly speak to a significant audience of sports enthusiasts. In other words, there is a time and place for a human component to reporting.

It does make me wonder how different newspapers and news services would be if all of the stories were generated by computer. In this case, I am specifically talking about computer systems that would not try to simulate human emotion. The stories would be very dry. Reports on, for example, the events in the Middle East would be factual, numerical and lacking in almost any human installed adjectives. Rather than describing an altercation between two fronts as being “a bloody battle”, a computer would simply describe this event as a “military altercation”. The computer might very well list the number of dead and injured on both sides. The computer might even estimate the actual amount of blood lost by the various humans involved in this battle. But the adjective “bloody” would likely not be used, unless intended to be some very specific measure of the type of battle that went on.

Is this better or worse? On a weekly basis, my family reads four newspapers. Each of these newspapers has a clear agenda. In addition to these newspapers, I regularly watch Fox news. Fox dramatically has a clear agenda. But I watch it, because I hear things that I do not hear on other news channels or read in most newspapers. In other words, I spend a great deal of time reading and listening to multiple sources of news in order to achieve a complete picture of events. My hope is that by being exposed to news sources that are presented with opposing slants, I will find the middle point which hopefully is relatively close to the truth. And before I go too far off into the philosophy of “truth”, I will move on to my next point.

What kind of doctor is best? My brother, as I have mentioned in the past, died from cancer at a young age and after a very long, multiyear battle. When I think back to the period of time that he was sick, I just cannot imagine how he stayed sane throughout it all. I would have never mentally and emotionally survived. My brother was brilliant. Not “brilliant” in the way that the word is used so often and liberally in our society. He truly was brilliant. He was definitely one of the smartest people I have ever met. He had the amazing ability to synthesize multiple different streams of information into one focused thought. Therefore, he could read an article about a political issue, combine it with his understanding of geography, throw in science wherever necessary and present a unique vision. And he did all of this before the Internet.

My brother was a very analytical person. In fact he was doing his PhD in Physics when he passed away. He was the kind of person that did not want information sugarcoated. He wanted to know the numbers. But there is absolutely no question that it was still important to him, and to my family, that the information be presented with a heavy touch of humanity. As it turns out, without naming names, at least one of the physicians who was regularly involved in his care was an emotionless, uncaring, SOB.

This one physician was everything that a doctor should not be. But that taught me something. As a medical student myself at the time, I learned just what it means to be on the receiving side of frightening and even terminal news. I also wanted the numbers. I also wanted to understand in absolute terms what my brother’s chances were. But I wanted this information to come packaged with some degree of empathy. I wasn’t looking for false hope. But yes, I was looking for some sign in the doctor’s eyes, that this was a tragedy. I wanted to “feel” that my brother was not just another data point on a graph that would eventually turn into a paper in JAMA. I wanted to feel that we were talking about a human being.

We learn from our negative experiences perhaps more, perhaps a lot more, than we do from our positive ones. And I learned a great deal from my brother’s life. One of the reasons I like to believe in the continuity of our souls after death, is because it strikes me as being extremely inefficient to lose all of the emotional knowledge we have gained throughout our lives. I would like to think that the principles of conservation of mass and energy, also apply to emotions. In other words, no emotion is ever lost. It might be transformed, it might be transferred – but it is never lost. I would like to believe this.

I don’t think that Cmdr. Data would be a good physician. He would be an excellent technician, and would most likely discover the cause of a patient’s illness faster than any human. But until artificially intelligent devices and beings do develop “humanity”, there will still be a need for empathetic humans to work through the repercussions of medical information and decisions.

I talk all the time about how medicine is advancing so quickly. But I wonder, if in a few centuries from now, a doctor transported forward from the 1800’s could not be just as effective as a doctor from the future. Back in the 1800’s, there was not a great deal that you could offer patients beyond empathy. And in the future, it may very well be the same.

Thanks for listening

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About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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