It was the first day at Management College, and the dean had delivered his welcome oration. He summarized by saying that one needs to hold a telescope in one hand and a microscope in the other and our ability to balance both determines success as a manager, and at times in life too. Maybe, he was also subtly indicating the need for being both objective and intuitive. Today, chances are that YouTube suggests your favorite song, Netflix or Amazon recommends the next movie that you may watch, and your choice of a physician may be influenced by one of the doctor-appointment apps in Play-store. Even higher are the chances that down the street, Google-Maps helps you take the next turn. But then, in a world where technology is enabling us to take faster and more accurate decisions, will intuition remain exclusive to human beings? For a moment, let us try and visualize the changing patterns of life through the kaleidoscope of time and technology.
Let’s start with a true-story. A few years back, three Japanese students while on their Australian holiday had set out in their Hyundai-Getz car to explore North-Stradbroke, a small island off-shore. A few hours into their journey, the GPS navigation kept prompting them to go further and further, till they were stuck on the muddy shores of the Pacific Ocean. One of the travelers later commented, “It kept saying that it would navigate us to a road but we got stuck”. So much for modern technology, the GPS forgot to identify the 15 kilometers of water and mud between the mainland and island. Despite such incidents, there is no denying that technology is transforming our daily lives. Do we need to be worried, or is this yet another phase of human progress and development?
Lines of Progress
Founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, opines that human progress is marked by both Horizontal and Vertical forms. Horizontal progress means copying things that already work, but at a larger scale and possibly lesser cost. One example is large scale manufacturing, wherein we know how to make a mobile phone or a medicine that is then replicated into hundreds and thousands. On the other hand, Vertical progress is harder, and is about doing things no one has done in the past. Leveraging 3-D printing technology to construct an organ, which may be used for transplantation, could qualify as Vertical progress.
Human beings have both Physical and Cognitive skills. Ever since the industrial revolution, machines have helped us to accomplish physical skills better. But, cognitive skills have remained mostly unique to human beings. However, this also seems to be transforming. We all know that facial expressions are one of the most important indicators of human emotions and are facilitated by movements of our facial muscles. Experts from the world of artistry and drama opine that we can create close to seven-thousand expressions on our face. As a medical student, the moment of realization that the human face has about 40 muscles was a challenging one, because, not accurately reproducing even a single name from that list of forty can potentially lead to failing a test. But the moment of revelation happened decades later, while reading about the path breaking work on facial muscles by eminent psychologist Paul Ekman. Ekman assessed each muscle movement and thereby all permutations and combinations to figure out that we human beings can make at least ten-thousand types of facial expressions. In real life though, about three-thousand of those are related to some emotion. By integrating modern day technology, Ekman came up with his Facial Action Coding System that can read the human mind by just observing the face. In the near future, imagine how this would revolutionize our daily lives; whether in job interviews, court of law or even in disease diagnosis and patient care. No matter what we may believe, the age of Vertical progress enabled by technology is here to stay.
Speed of Progress
The period from the 15th to 18th centuries were marked by great sea voyages when adventurous sailors first crossed the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Pacific oceans. Forced to survive for long periods of time on packaged foods during these voyages, sailors suffered from a terrible ailment. Later identified as Scurvy, the disease ravaged both body and mind, and was caused by chronic Vitamin-C deficiency due to the lack of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Sifting through the annals of history, it can be observed that in the year 1601, an English sailor Captain James Lancaster performed an experiment towards prevention of Scurvy. On one of the four ships bound for India, he prescribed 3 teaspoons of lemon juice per day for the crew. When half the journey was completed, 110 men out a total 278 had died in the three ships, while everyone in the lemon supplied ship survived. In what could qualify as origin of medical research and evidence based medicine, Captain Lancaster’s experiment had proved that lemon juice, a rich source of Vitamin-C, can prevent attacks of Scurvy. Strange as it may sound, it took almost 264 years for these vital findings to be adopted across the British Empire. Unfortunately, the delay cost the lives of almost two million seamen during those years.
One may argue that this was centuries ago, but recent findings also shows that in the US it takes a doctor an average of 17 years to adopt new treatments for half of their patients. In his book Black Box Thinking, author Matthew Syed calls this Glacial adoption rates. With a deluge of information, equal to about 700,000 medical journals articles published every year, it may be imperative that we make use of technology and achieve Vertical progress in distilling information and bridging knowledge gaps in healthcare.
Connecting the dots
Are you from a generation who were taught to drive in a car with a horizontal gear-stick mounted next to the steering wheel? If so, it’s unlikely that you had then even visualized driving an automatic car. Back in those times, once my father was convinced about my driving skills, he asked a simple question, If I ever faced with a situation where in a pedestrian jumped in front of the car and the only way for me to save him was to swerve into the opposite lane that put me in danger of colliding with an oncoming truck, which option would I chose? While the answer will remain a closely guarded secret between us, it seems that very soon we may have cars that will do all the choosing for us. Not just the gear shifts or drive modes, even ethical choices like whether to be Selfish or a Saviour on the streets may soon be enabled by technology. When two people meet, the number of units of information that flows between them is almost ten-thousand per second. With such enormous amounts of messages going back and forth, it may take what we call a hunch or an intuition to take decisions. Hence we may still want to stick to own choices rather than that of a computer when it comes to matters of life and death. For everything else, there could be a master chip.
The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore based MNC that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences knowledge value chain since 2005.