Doctors, Jeopardy, and Computers

When I was recently watching online NOVA’s Smartest Machine on Earthan exceptionally fascinating documentary on the IBM computer that defeated the two most accomplished (human) Jeopardy players in the game show’s history—it occurred to me that it won’t be long before the very same programming techniques that made it possible for a computer to reach about 98% accuracy in answering Jeopardy questions will be used to accurately diagnose human diseases. A doctor, after all, plays Jeopardy all day:

Patient: I’m 25 years old, my breathing is labored, but I don’t have a sore throat. My fever is up, but it’s under 101 degrees. I’m coughing up green stuff.

Doctor (thinking to herself): What is bronchitis?

In other words, in diagnosing a patient a doctor practices abduction (inference to the best hypothesis).

And that’s what the Jeopardy computer does as well. 

So, for doctors, the writing is on the wall. Computers will one day replace them too (at least for diagnosis).

Now check this out. Big Think is reporting on a new intellectual prize:

The X Prize Foundation, the nonprofit dedicated to solving the world’s “Grand Challenges” through global incentivized competitions, announced a $10 million prize last week for whomever could “develop a mobile solution that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.” Based on the fictional Star Trek device called the tricorder, a portable scanner used in part to diagnose diseases and assess health, the Tricorder X Prize will be announced in early 2012. 

Granted, this device does not exist yet, but if Peter Diamandis and the geniuses behind the X Prize are correct, it should take less that 8 years to become a reality. Every X Prize, including the two past prizes—to construct a private spacecraft and super-fuel efficient cars—is put through a rigorous vetting process to ensure that it could be possible within the next 3-8 years.

Given what IBM has already accomplished with Jeopardy, 3 years seems pessimistic.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Doctors, Jeopardy, and Computers

  1. Do you mean induction rather than abduction???

    • Paradigm says:

      Let’s hope so. Otherwise Santi should report that doctor to the police : )

      I think we should start on a more modest level and design a robot that can make jeans and sneakers. That would be a great start.

    • santitafarella says:

      Nope. I mean abduction (not of the alien variety). In logic, abduction is a form of induction. Once you’ve got a series of plausible inductions concerning a matter in front of you, abduction is what you do to arrive at the BEST hypothesis to account for it. Charles Pierce first came up with the idea. It’s a refinement on Francis Bacon and associated with the scientific method. See Wikipedia on the subject here:

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