Will computers replace doctors?

Surgical Robots

Since the first robot-assisted surgery in 1985, robotic surgery has gotten a lot of attention. Today, the most common system is the da Vinci Surgical System. It has a 3D-camera system that surgeons view on a screen, as well as robotic arms that hold instruments inside the patient's body. The system translates a surgeon's hand movements, using robotic arms, into much smaller movements inside, allowing for tiny incisions in surgeries that would otherwise require large ones (and much more discomfort and recovery time). This system is used in more than 800 hospitals in the United States and Europe. But until 2010, none of these robotic surgeries was solely performed by robots -- it was always a robot mirroring the movements of a surgeon. Some robotic surgeries in 2010, however, were "fully robotic" -- a surgeon pressed some buttons but did not manipulate the instruments in any way.

Robots are also used to help diagnose and treat disease. The Pap smear is a test that most women are familiar with – it helps diagnose cervical cancer, and women get one every year. The slides are often analyzed by an automated system, which targets areas of concern for a person to review later. This process has been proven to help catch more instances of pre-cancerous lesions, leading to more computer-aided disease diagnostics.

Watson, the artificial intelligence IBM computer famous for beating "Jeopardy!" contestants in 2011, is also being used to help diagnose conditions. The machine can use its evidence-based learning and natural language capabilities to receive a query from a doctor and mine the latest medical data to help reach a diagnosis.

But the question remains: Would people ever accept just speaking to a computer instead of a doctor? Dr. Bottles thinks so. He cites a medical kiosk avatar featured at a panel called "Man-Made Minds: Living With Thinking Machines" at the World Science Festival in 2011. The kiosk was used by a young mother who was concerned about her child's diarrhea. The panel moderator stated that "the avatar was much more compassionate in relating to the child and his mother than human triage nurses she has encountered as a mother taking her child to New York City Hospital emergency rooms" [source: Kevin MD].

As long as we can feel cared about and we're getting accurate diagnosis and treatment, maybe it doesn't matter whether the person giving it is a human or a robot.