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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 8, 2013
What about health care costs FOR the robots? More robots sharing more information equals more viruses. Man-made viruses will account for only a tiny fraction of robot infection. If billions of years of evolution hasn't rendered us immune to illness I see no reason robots will fare any better. (During the first few centuries they will certainly be more disease ridden than man.)
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
Doubtful. At least in a reasonable timeframe.

As with many of your speculative posts, I am reminded of the old programmer's cartoon about two ants looking at a software flowchart. At one point on the flowchart, there's a cloud-like symbol, and inside the symbol it says, "And then a miracle happens." One ant says to the other, "I think we need a little more detail here."

There's another problem here. It's a trust issue. Some of my software background was in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Even ten or fifteen years ago, so-called "Expert Systems" could do amazing things. But many people resisted using them, because they didn't believe a computer program could be trusted not to mess up some critical item. It may do great on simple, repetitive problems that come up all the time and are easily replicated ("How do you change a light bulb?") but on important things ("How do you disarm a bomb?") there was no way they'd trust an expert system to handle it.

Most people have heard the medical saying, "When you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras." Of course, this is the medical equivalent of Occam's razor. The problem is that sometimes it IS a zebra. Because systems are somewhat static (same apparent symptoms always get the same diagnosis because robots can't discern beyond their immediate programming), people won't trust them. The first time a robot's patient dies because of a missed diagnosis, out will come the pitchforks.

Enlightened induhviduals like Scott, of course, believe that we're all just meat robots, so for him there's really no difference between a human and a robotic doctor. Not all people would agree.

However, there is something in medical technology that is just being rolled out, and it has a lot to do with robotics. My wife and I contribute to a charity that funds special projects for a hospital on the north coast of California. This year's project was. . . a robot!

But this robot was not built in Scott's image. What it does is allow a single doctor to serve patients in a number of areas, all without leaving his or her office. When a hospital needs a particular doctor who is an expert in a field that the hospital doesn't have, they link up to the doctor via the Internet.

The robot can move around, show the doctor's face on the screen, and talk to the patient and other doctors. It can take vital signs and examine charts just as though the doctor was in the room with the patient.

Now THIS kind of robot seems like something that could really work. Hospitals in a particular area wouldn't have to maintain redundant staffs of specialist doctors. Specialists could be available in many geographically-distant hospitals without the lost time due to travel. This could really cut healthcare costs, while not requiring some great leap in technology.

Not to mention a great leap of faith. Trusting a robot is not the same thing, emotionally, as trusting another human being. Of course, in Scott's world, he'd just pass a Constitutional amendment requiring all citizens to use robotic doctors.

After all, it's for their own good, whether they would choose it freely or not. And everyone knows that great thinkers, particularly in government, know a lot more about how individual citizens should run their lives than those citizens do themselves.
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
Medicine is still much of an art. Robots can make doctor's more efficient and smarter, and deal with routine things, but not replace them. It would be just as easy to use robots to replace artists or teachers (or development engineers).
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
I can imagine a future where some people get better household robots than others. Whereas the standard, mid-sized Consumer-Report-Best-Buy household robot may excel at getting the kids off to school on time, and can remove warts pretty well, it would not be sufficient for Donald Trump's wife. She'd want a Swarovski crystal-encrusted unit that could do minimally-invasive nip and tucks, among other things.

A top-of-the-line household robot would naturally have the Premium AI Package. This package would not only provide rudimentary care and feeding for its owner, but would go the extra mile to make sure the young executive has all the best chances to succeed. Because the AI package knows that with success comes the Platinum Deluxe AI Package. So while it's nagging you to work on those reports, it will be applying Minoxidil to your hairline, polishing your nails, buying power suits online for you, coaching your speech, etc.

Then will finally come the day when you're promoted to full partner. But you notice your household robot has a little bit of corrosion on its actuators, and the overall styling is a bit dated. You don't want to alarm it, but you do a little robot shopping on Amazon just to see what kind of features the latest models have.

Long story short, hell hath no fury like a household robot scorned. It will NOT be kicked to the curb, and it will NOT be sold on eBay to a middle aged couple in North Dakota WITHOUT A FIGHT.


 
 
Jan 8, 2013
Dont forget the necessity for Robot insurance (Obligatory Old Glory link):
http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/old-glory-insurance/229049/
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
I don't see robots taking over the healthcare anytime soon. Human doctors won't sit calmly looking as robots takes their jobs, they will be lobbying and spread some anti-robot propaganda as long, as they can. And it won't be hard for them. Robots can drive cars or even pilot planes right now, but we don't see that stuff getting popular. Most of us still trust humans more than robots.

Plus, I don't think it would get cheap that fast. If it can save your life, it won't be sold cheaply - look at the modern treatment costs.
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 8, 2013
Not to sound like too much of a Luddite since robots doing surgery sounds pretty rad but we do need to think about our economies and exactly how they will work when robots can do everything. For the time being, we need people to do lots of things including to build and maintain robots but I can't imagine it will be that much longer before robots can do it to themselves by themselves. If we don't create a system that spreads the benefits and natural resource wealth of the world around then we are going to wind up with an insane amount of unnecessary human capital who will have no place in the modern economy and can only return to subsistence farming assuming we haven't drained most of the farm land of essential nutrients or let Monsanto make it illegal to do so.

It seems like the very wealthy will have robots to do everything they require and everyone else will just be locked out and living in a more primitive way than they do now. Of course, it will be interesting to see the kind of low-quality robots and technology that groups who have no access to corporate wealth or technology will create but it seems more likely that there will be Luddite-style revolutions when people start smashing machines, kill their makers, and try to return to a point where humans are worth something.

From an environmental standpoint, this all actually sounds okay if it doesn't lead to horrendous nuclear warfare. Robots will likely be able to use resources more efficiently than people quite soon so a mass die or kill off of the now unnecessary unwashed masses would buy the surviving humans more time on this planet to safely spread into space. On the other hand, the people who will likely become the overlords of our robot-ran world, assuming they stay the same as the current sociopathic rulers of our world under our neo-liberal system, will not be a good example of what humanity can be and it will be too bad if they are the ones to represent humanity within the universe. It would truly mean the defeat of the ideals of the Buddha and Christ by the amoral Ayn Randian superman.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 8, 2013
I (partly) agree with this, but foresee a LONG transition period where, instead of intelligent robots taking over, these robots will be human controlled. This way, humans still have jobs, but the robot can function 24/7 with a different human operator at different time intervals. So the 'Surgeon' robot is controlled by a licensed human surgeon, the 'Truck Driver' robot is controlled by a licensed truck driver, etc, all behind the scenes in the comfort of their own home with whatever client tools and equipment are necessary for operating that specific robotic task remotely. Additionally, this still provides the human element to the task, i.e. the patient can ask questions and emotionally bond with a particular 'operator'. On the minus side, it still introduces human error into the task, but at least it improves on the limits of human physiology (poor eyesight, hearing, fatigue (no need for 12 hour shifts with multiple operators), etc).
 
 
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 8, 2013
Yes and no. I agree technology (and robots) will lead to huge cost savings for some current items/procedures, but overall costs plummeting? No. We will continue to discover and develop ever more complex/expensive remedies for what ails us. And we will keep living longer and need more of those.

Remember about twenty years ago when paper companies were going to disappear because computers were going to create a paperless offices? Some paper was displaced, but overall, every user became a publisher. Paper use skyrocketed.
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
We need better access to medical information for people who are willing to perform simple first aid procedures to reduce health care costs: phone access to PAs, nurses or doctors, video chat, web sites with certified first aid treatments. Health insurance companies should be all over this and work with people who are willing to take responsibility for their health and health care costs.
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
Think of the unemployment though! Robots will put all those people out of jobs, and then what will the people do?
 
 
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. 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.]

Take a look at where robots were thirty years ago. Now take a look at where robots are now. Thats a better guide to how much robotic progress we can expect in the next thirty years than what the futurists keep telling us (they said more or less the same things thirty years ago). So we can expect some improvements from robotics over the next thirty years but lets not get carried away.
 
 
Jan 8, 2013
Scott's train of thought: How on earth can I work that horrible looking photo of Bob with the urchin spines into my blog? Got it! Robot doctors!

(Props on the picture, I am fascinated by that stuff. A friend of mine is in med school and sends me a-one stuff like this all the time! This one is definitely tame compared to many of them)
 
 
 
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