Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Future of Health Care

Here in the United States one of the key issues in the political arena has been the state of health care and what can be done to improve its accessibility to all levels of the economic spectrum and make it more affordable to everyone - with the left demanding state controlled universal health care and the right singing the praises of the present market system. In this article I will take no political stance because I don't think this is a political problem. Rather what I wish to discuss is the open source future of medicine and why that future makes the problem of the expense and availability of health care a problem that will soon go away.

No doubt some readers are already shaking their heads. They are probably saying to themselves that medicine requires doctors and goods that are both scarce and which must necessarily remain scarce for the foreseeable future. Of course if this premise were true then my earlier claims would be unjustified and so ,of course, that is a premise that I will show to be in error.

To begin with lets look at medical doctors. The backbone of the modern health care system is the science of medicine which is put to use by medical doctors who are essentially technicians (very well educated technicians). These technicians are usually specialists in one particular system or organ of the human body – though they are well educated in the whole body. These technicians are also experts at diagnosis. They apply the science of medicine and biology in order to pinpoint problems with the human body. This involves gathering data from the body through various tests and instruments. This data is then put through a system of inference which seeks to classify a set of symptoms as either within the range of healthy or as a syndrome or a disease. Although at one time it required a very intelligent and educated person to gather this data and perform the necessary inferences in order to make a diagnosis most of this process can now be performed by an intelligent machine.

This is not meant to slight the science of medical diagnostics - the brilliant masters of chess have already met their humiliating match and have now been surpassed by the machine.

So being that this is already the state of affairs what can we likely expect to see in the next ten years or so? Here is one scenario which I think is likely. Within five years local clinics start using very good weak AI expert systems to make diagnostics and prognostications. Soon thereafter it becomes legal to obtain a prescription from a clinic based on the prognosis of the AI alone. This move drastically cuts the cost of visits to a clinic because there is no doctor on salary. Of course when necessary a doctor could be consulted through telepresencing, in fact a network of M.D.'s might be able to augment the functionality of the expert system which could then be networked all over the world.

With such a networked medical AI/ telepresencing-doctors system the cost and effectiveness of medical treatment could be greatly reduced.

At this point some might say: big deal, we will soon have expert systems that can make accurate diagnosis and prognosis, the real cost of health care is treatment. I concede that this is true. However the very nature of medicine – and hence treatment – is presently changing paradigmatically. Within the next few years it will become inexpensive for a person to have his/her genome sequenced. Soon all medicine will be based on a person's genome. And not only genetic diseases. Soon our understanding of genetics will allow us to regenerate organs and tissue, and bolster our immune systems to kill cancer and other invading replicators. Such treatment relies on the science and technology of bioinformatics. Bioinformatics understands that the the human genome is a structure which contains information which instructs a kinematic replication process, i.e. Life. Once this biological paradigm shift has fully come to fruition I would imagine that one will be able to go visit a clinic to receive a gene treatment which makes one immune to the common cold and influenza for about as much as it costs to get a soar throat looked at now. I expect to see such advances within fifteen years.

Beyond fifteen years it is quite hard to say what medicine may be like but lets try any way. I think that it would be a conservative prognosis to say that sometime between 2020 and 2030 we will have achieved both molecular manufacturing and artificial general intelligence (AGI). If after this point we haven't destroyed ourselves then we should be enjoying an economic utopia. But beyond the fact that one obviously wouldn't need any money in such a society (and so wouldn't be concerned about the cost of health care) one could also expect that the very idea of health will have changed. What we consider to be “healthy” at present may in a couple decades be considered unbearably diseased.

With all of humanity networked through an exponentially growing super intelligence, and with tools that can manipulate molecules to create any conceivable thing, the very nature of physical human existence may become something that is currently inconceivable to us.

5 Comments:

Interesting thoughts. But what about the costs of malpractice insurance due to lawsuits. I believe that has a lot to do with the cost of health care today. In a few years there may be less doctors but unfortunately just as many if not more lawyers.

By Blogger motojet, at 10/5/06 09:37  

Excellent point motojet. I'll have to give that one some thought but my answer right off the bat would point to AI legel expert systems that would be quite similar to the AI medical expert systems.

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