Nate Peaty on the Emerging Reality of Artificial Intelligence

By Nathanael Peaty posted 07-25-2016 13:38


The Emerging Reality of Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Pharmacy


Nate Peaty, PharmD, MS


When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills. -Chinese Proverb

My favorite thing about that proverb is that most are inclined to interpret it as passing judgment on those who are nervous about change, but I like to take it at face value.  It states a fact.  That fact is that change forces a choice upon us and that choice will determine our actions and potential success.  I think it’s safe to say that the winds of change are kicking up in healthcare.  In fact, it seems as though we can expect them to blow continuously (and somewhat forcibly) for the foreseeable future.  There are many decisions that lie ahead of us that are unprecedented and deny us the comfort of experience to guide our choice but we must still make a choice.  Modernization of healthcare is long overdue and it has a lot of ground to cover in order to catch up with the rest of society and industry.  As history has repeatedly demonstrated, technology is a potent driver of transformative change and healthcare will be no exception.  One of the most powerful and controversial technologies at the moment is artificial intelligence (AI). 

The past year has seen an exponential increase in discussion and build efforts around AI with most people struggling to make up their minds about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing regardless of their technical competency on the matter.  Along those lines, there have been multiple parallels drawn between the development of AI and the development of nuclear fission.  That perspective does provide a useful framework for appreciating the scope of considerations that humanity needs to account for as part of pursuing an AI objective.  The creation of AI would be one of the most important moments in human history.  The power that it would potentially possess to influence the world is no less in scale than the development of the fission bomb or nuclear energy.  At this time, it seems that there is much more potential for societal benefit to come from AI than there ever was from nuclear fission, although that remains to be seen. 

One of those areas of tremendous potential benefit is in automating and augmenting healthcare services which underscores the relevance of the dilemma many in our profession face at the moment.  Should I build a wall or should I build a windmill?  As healthcare professionals, we have a choice in front of us.  Do we view the capabilities of automated intelligence as a powerful tool that would allow us to vastly improve our ability to care for the sick and dying or do we see it as an insidious threat that could potentially render our expertise redundant?  Do we start laying a foundation as a profession to thoughtfully design and incorporate machine learning and clinical automation into our care infrastructures or do we work aggressively to put in place as many legislative and regulatory obstacles as possible to slow or stop its utilization in areas that could potentially reduce the need for pharmacist expertise and skill (as numerous state boards of pharmacy have done historically)?  

I don’t presume to know the future but I can tell you that history is very clear on this matter.  AI or a close approximation of it is coming regardless of whether we want it to or not.  It will not show up overnight, 30 years from now.  Instead, it will be incorporated continuously as each new advance is developed with many impacts already being felt today.  The only thing in question at the moment is how our profession intends to prepare for advanced automation and engage in its design and utilization.  In these moments, I find it helpful to remind myself of the social contract our profession exists by and our oath to advocate for our patient’s interests.  In my opinion, nothing good will come from building walls at this time.  Not for our patients and not for our profession.  We may live to see our profession evolve into something completely unrecognizable by today’s perspective (as has happened many times throughout history) but only by continuing to make decisions that best serve the needs of society and not our current professional identity.  The choice in front of us isn’t whether or not we think AI will be beneficial or a threat because assuredly it will be both.  The choice is what are we going to do as a profession to ensure that our patients receive that full benefit and protect them from harm?  Should we build walls or windmills to accomplish that objective?  History will reveal whether we made the right choice or not but one thing is for certain, we must make a choice.