Medical mind-games and weird ideas
As The Medical Futurist, my job is to map out current technological trends, to distill the overall paradigm frame in which we are thinking about medicine and healthcare; and based on data, analytics and carefully weighed subjective opinions, to set up potential pathways forward.
What disruptive technologies do we see today? How do these new tools influence patients, doctors and other stakeholders in healthcare? How do digital technological solutions clog into trends? What effect do these directions have on society? Does the notion of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift apply? If so, how? Where do we stand today? Where might be the places of individual stakeholders and regulatory bodies? How do power relations change within the system? What types of ethical concerns do follow from novel disruptive technologies?
So many questions to consider. My method as The Medical Futurist is to set up potential pathways regarding extremities. What is the best and worst outcome we might have within a hundred years? Will we have a Black Mirror or Westworld-like dystopic society or will our environment enable us to live the Aristotelian ‘good life’? Sometimes my contemplations result in short-term trendsetting analyses, sometimes in sci-fi stories – and sometimes weird ideas. Here, I’d like to present you the weirdest ideas I got during my futurist mind-games.
1) Will robots have a distinctive smell?
The future of healthcare will be filled with robots: TUG-like mechanic structures will carry around medication and equipment in hospitals, Pepper-like humanoid creatures will greet patients at hospital receptions or act like human companions. Robots are made up of many components resulting in a distinctive machine-smell: plastic, metal, oil, various unique parts. I can already smell the robot in the room.
I was even contemplating about how to solve the robot smell-trouble, and I figured out where the answer could come from – Japan. The tech-savvy nation already had a robotic response to stinky feet and bad breath – as they can hardly tolerate body odor. I’m sure they will be the first to come up with a neutral smelling robot.
2) Will the lack of Bluetooth cause an emergency?
Ted was sipping his latte macchiato in a café on a piazza in downtown Palermo. The sun was shining bright, and the place was buzzing with chitchat all around. Suddenly, a street vendor from Morocco offering fridge magnets, postcards and umbrellas collapsed. Ted was close to the man, so he rushed to him and took a portable diagnostic device similar to the Viatom Checkme, WIWE or CliniCloud. He was eager to examine the man’s heart rate, pulse, and ECG, but the gadget didn’t have a screen, so the data had to be sent to his phone. And the Bluetooth connection didn’t work! The smartphone couldn’t find the damn gadget! How could that be? Even in 2078? Ted thought we already solved this issue back in the 2010s.
I can easily imagine a similar situation. Digital health device developers should take into account the power of (dis)connectivity and minimize the points where Bluetooth, WLAN, Wi-Fi or anything else could have an impact on whether or not a MedTech gadget works.
3) Will only barbarians eat without technologies?
In 2086, Shiko, the poshest restaurant downtown Tokyo offered a special night to its guests: they could eat without smart forks and smart chopsticks, food sensors, dietary chatbots, even without social media. What a bold idea! There will be no pocket-sized sensors on the table to test food for gluten, peanut or any other allergens. No chance to see what your food in reality contains. You cannot use dietary chatbots to tell you what to choose from the menu and how to combine them so you can remain within your daily calorie target. You cannot even use social media, especially Instagram, to share your culinary experience with friends and relatives. Can you imagine that?
The only exemption from the rule is the use of nutrigenomics since you cannot leave out of sight the results of your DNA test and the particular nutritional recommendations you already learned. No other excuse is accepted! Will people take the challenge? Eating like barbarians at the turn of the 21st century?
4) Will surgeons feel apt for the job without technologies?
Virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, Artificial Intelligence-supported surgical robots help surgeons become more powerful and confident in the OR. In the next decades, it might become natural to have surgical robots, such as the da Vinci Surgical System. According to current market analysis, the industry is about to boom. By 2020, surgical robotics sales are expected to almost double to $6.4 billion.
So, what if surgical robots will be present in every OR soon? What if digital technologies could become such an intensive part of a surgeon’s work that they might feel weaker and more insecure without them?
5) Will virtual reality cause an obesity epidemic?
Virtual reality will become an excellent tool for making healthcare more pleasant in the future, as it can make the healthcare journey for patients more agreeable: through providing an entirely immersive experience, it alleviates all kinds of pain, dissipates fear, offers more empathy and better care.
However, what if the first line of affordable VR devices offering immersive experiences way better than reality might lead to an addiction wave in the future – just as in the case of online gaming. Although there is no scientific evidence for VR having any side effects in a low dose, there are already works of fiction depicting scenes where excessive usage and careless humans might take the technology. The dilemma of living on/offline and its possible, utopian consequences is shown brutally for example in the sci-fi short, Uncanny Valley. In addition, the Disney cartoon, Wall-E, shows what happens to “fitless humans” hooked on VR.
6) Will we have to learn how to make conversations?
Do you consider it slightly rude if someone calls you on your cell phone? Out of the blue? Did you notice that you rather send an e-mail first if you want to call someone who is not your mom or wife just to be sure they will take it? Did you notice that family members are sending each other smileys about dinner being ready from the next room instead of calling out? When did it happen to us that we started to choose the written word over the spoken one – the planned, erasable and choreographed reality instead of the spontaneous back-and-forth? Imagine what we might have in the future with Babel fish earpods translating real-time between any languages or AR contact lenses that project additional information about the world.
In her marvelous book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In A Digital Age, Sherry Turkle argues that face-to-face conversation could bring back empathy to our lives which we let regress and blame on technology. In the future, we might have digital-free spaces where people could practice having face-to-face conversations. Does it creep you out? Do something against this grim possibility! Read the book and talk to people, not only message them!
7) Will bioprinted human organ transplants take place on the black market?
Organovo successfully bioprinted liver tissues already in 2014. They seemed to be 4-6 years away from printing liver parts for transplantation. The company suggests that within a decade, we will be able to print solid organs such as liver, heart, and kidney. The bioprinted liver tissue could make it to the FDA in 2019. While the technology is advancing rapidly, lawmakers are far behind. It is certainly a possibility (to avoid!) that the regulatory framework around the utilization of bioprinted human organs will lag behind this significant innovation.
Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are waiting for an organ donor. It might easily become a future scenario that the first transplantation of a bioprinted human organ might take place through the black market as no ethical bureau will be brave or prepared enough to supervise it.
8) Will we edit genes with CRISPR at home?
In October 2017, biohacker Josiah Zayner gave a lecture in San Francisco in which he claimed to be the first person known to have edited his DNA using the CRISPR/Cas-9 technology. He insists it be something anyone can do using one of his company’s gene engineering kits. Does it sound scary and far from safe? Yes, it does. As a geneticist, do you ask whether I recommend the technology to anyone? No, I don’t.
However, I won’t be surprised if in the future people wanted to modify themselves genetically at home. As the possibility of ordering a DIY CRISPR set for home is already a reality, I would not be surprised to hear about emergency situations connected to CRISPR in the future.
9) Will completely healthy humans ask for technological body extensions?
In the future, brain implants could improve our memory. Implanted magnets or RFID chips implanted in our fingers could replace passwords and keys. Exoskeletons could boost our strength, and augment a whole range of our human capabilities.
As technological innovations in the field of medicine and healthcare multiply day by day, it will be more and more usual to augment our bodies with the help of machines. It makes us faster, stronger or more sensitive to the environment. I’m convinced the time will come when the first transhumanist will ask a team of doctors to replace a conventional arm with a robotic one as it is much better than the original. How would the medical community react to that?
Did I miss something? What are the weirdest notions you imagine about the future of healthcare? Do you see them as scary so we should discuss how to avoid them or do you imagine them as embodiments of another era – now they might be weird, but somehow they will naturally fit the futuristic environment? Let me know what you think on The Medical Futurist’s Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn channel!
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