In 2004 I began writing Doctor Vita, a novel describing the encroachment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into medical care. Fifteen years later, in 2019, Doctor Vita was published. The story described Artificial Intelligence in medicine as a perceived panacea that descended into a chaotic dystopian reality.
In recent years, engineers have developed closed-loop AI machines that can administer appropriate doses of anesthetics without human input, as described in The Washington Post article, “We Are Convinced the Machine Can Do Better Than Human Anesthesiologists.”
This month’s issue of Anesthesiology, our specialty’s leading journal, contains two studies on further incremental Artificial Intelligence in Medicine advances in the operating room. Both studies reveal machines that control a patient’s blood pressure automatically during surgery, by the administration of fluids and/or vasopressors (Joosten, et al. and Maheswari et al. )
Two editorials accompany these publications. In the first editorial, titled “Computer-assisted Anesthesia Care: Avoiding the Highway to HAL,” author Dr. David Story writes, “Among the cautionary tales of computer-assisted human activity, 2001:A Space Odyssey is a standout. On a journey to Jupiter, HAL the computer kills most of the crew, forcing the survivor to deactivate HAL. Like space travel, while computer-assisted health care has great potential it also contains the full Rumsfeld range of knowns and unknowns.” Dr. Story concludes his editorial with, “As our pilot counterparts are doing in aviation,anesthesiologists should anticipate training in crises while using computer-assisted technologies, as well as maintaining the skills to ‘fly’ manually. . . . None of us wants to manage a deteriorating patient by trying to deactivate a malfunctioning computer-assisted anesthesia system, only to have it respond, ‘I’m sorry . . . I can’t do that.’”
The second editorial in the same issue of Anesthesiology is titled “Back to the OR of the Future: How Do We Make It a Good One?” Author Dr. Martin London writes, “The classic 1985 science fiction film Back to the Future transports the erstwhile protagonist (Marty McFly, played by a young Michael J. Fox) 30 years backwards into the past in the eccentric ‘Doc’ Brown’s custom DeLorean time machine, to deal with a series of comedic yet moral quandaries regarding his future existence. A notable quote by Doc Brown is, ‘The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.’ Dr. London goes on to say, “The use of artificial intelligence–derived controllers clearly signals a new era in intraoperative hemodynamic management. . . . It does seem inevitable that software control of hemodynamics and anesthetic depth will become routine. Thus, we might ask, ‘What happens to the operator/clinician involved?’ Will it be more appropriate for a busy anesthesiologist covering multiple operating rooms to be supervising the admittedly extreme scenario of ‘information technology experts’ ensuring the machines are functioning properly or actual healthcare providers monitoring the patient and not the machine? And what happens when the “computers go down”? Who will rush in to fill the gap? Will the process be ‘good’ or will it be ‘dystopic?’”
Artificial intelligence in medicine is not the stuff of science fiction. AI in medicine is here. Will Artificial Intelligence in medicine assist doctors in compassionate care of their patients, or will AI present one more set of computers obstructing the relationships between healing professionals and those who need healing?
Medical journals like Anesthesiology reveal the future of medicine, as published data unfolds. A novel like Doctor Vita reveals a fictional future of medicine, based on the very trends that are going on today.
Do you want a computer to care for you when your life is on the line? Do you want an algorithm, or a human, to be your doctor?
Will you have a choice?
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READ ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM.