In the futuristic movie Blade Runner, Detective Rick Deckard's (played by Harrison Ford) skill at "retiring" renegade robotic replicants depends on a series of trick questions that are designed to detect an "empathic" response. While the soulless robots routinely fail the test, the highly advanced Nexus-6 models still seem to be eerily human. While Deckard violently terminates three of the robots, lingering questions over just what is "human" leads him to fall for vulnerable sexy replicant Rachael.

While the Population Health Blog ponders that, along comes the news that a Russian chatbot computer passed the Turing test. More than 30% of the humans who engaged in a text-only "conversation" with the program thought it was being controlled by a 13 year old boy. Not only was the computer able to organize facts and sentences, it also responded with the subtle nuances that underlie typical "human" communication.

While the PHB is weirded out, it is not surprised. In the book The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee note the doubling of computers' processing power can be likened to the ancient story of doubling wheat seeds on the squares of a chess board.  They point out that the amount of wheat (or processing power) can be grasped until you get to the "second half" of the board: that's when the amounts become staggering and the implications start getting weird.

They point out that computing power has now entered that second half. Quadruped "mule pack" machines can carry payloads across unfriendly landscapes, entire factories can manufacture complex items at a fraction of the cost and Watson can win Jeopardy matches

And now, Turing has fallen.

This is good news for health care.  "Second half" decision support in electronic health records is better able to focus on a more likely differential diagnosis, suggest a more accurate series of tests and tailor treatment at the point of care. The good news is that medicine will finally become faster, better and cheaper.  While some may fret about the loss of the "human touch" (or jobs) in this brave new world of the doctor-patient relationship, Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out that when human intelligence is combined with the resources of high performing information technology, the product is better than either alone.  For example, a chess master plus a high-end chess program can beat either alone. 

The same will be true in medicine: smart doctors plus nuanced health information technology will be better than either alone.

Just like in Blade Runner. Thanks to each other, both Deckard and Rachael are better... humans.

Image from Wikipedia

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