Computers as Doctors

IBM’s computer “Watson” won Jeopardy recently. IBM’s claim that Watson’s progeny could benefit the medical community led Carey Goldburg to speculate on what the future of medicine may hold in this article, ‘The McDonald’s Rx’: How Computers Can And Should Change Doctoring. While the prospect could put doctors out of jobs, she thinks many doctors won’t view this as a bad thing. Many doctors are dissatisfied, because after becoming highly trained their skills languish and instead they do paperwork. The field of medicine emphasizes standard of care. Ideally, a patient would receive the same treatment regardless of which doctor she sees.

This is another case of a field encountering the problem of overeducation.

According to the CIA, the US is 99% literate. That’s good. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. If having a 99% literacy rate means we also have unemployed PhDs, I’ll take it. But I don’t think it does.

We decry the state of our schools, and justly so. They are deplorable. We mock the college system in which astronomy students graduate from Harvard believing that the phases of the moon are caused by the earth’s shadow. And yet we have unemployable PhDs and physicians doing paperwork. People regret the time and money they wasted getting their BS, their MBA, their PhD which left them no more employable and sometimes LESS employable– and deeply in debt.

I don’t pretend to know how this has come about. (Probably it has something to do with education as a business, recruiting students who won’t benefit and can’t pay for school. Something to do with lawmakers nobly “improving” education, making it possible for more and more people to take out loans and go to school, when school isn’t necessarily the best thing for them.) I don’t pretend to know the solution either. I want everyone to have a chance, impoverished & disadvantaged kids, and lower middle class kids who can’t get a break.

My only argument is that there IS a problem. Education for everyone is idealistic, but in practice it means everyone getting an expensive piece of paper which does not translate into knowledge. Once upon a time a high school diploma was something special, something not everyone had or was expected to have. Now it is standard and a college degree is moving that direction too. Where does it stop? Is it possible to calculate an appropriate amount of education that will yield responsible citizens and voters but not dissatisfied janitors?

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