The Algorithm of Empathy
A short story on life altering disease, a technological future of medicine, and the need for the human touch.
The vibrating phone drew my attention away from work.
Blinking in the sharp rays of the afternoon sun, I was surprised to see that the concert I was to attend with friends tonight was cancelled. I mean Omega, my virtual, artificially intelligent assistant cancelled it on my behalf. This was perfectly usual, as it knew things earlier than I did. Networked with most of the population’s vital signs and medical records, it was tasked with keeping much of the developed world healthy and kicking. It’s like an ever present safety net that makes perfectly informed decisions.
Just as I was thinking about this, an appointment with an oncologist popped into the concert’s place on my calendar. Omega does things only on purpose and never makes a mistake. Just like when it does the shopping or organizes my work days. But I was baffled – my genome sequencing didn’t show any predilection to cancer. Even so, the vast wealth of data Omega could tap about lifestyle and vital signs allowed it to predict disease before it even manifested itself.
I tapped the notification, only to find out it was more than a simple appointment. It looked for and found the hospital with the highest success rate in treating early stage liver cancer. Liver cancer? I had no symptoms and the drop of blood I gave at my latest scheduled check-up came back normal a few months ago. Still oblivious to my puzzlement, Omega confirmed that my insurance plan covered this. It was already thinking ahead, but I felt a pang of fear.
I wished there was someone I could ask about why this was happening.
Omega makes decisions automatically and its algorithms make sure no human interaction is needed while it operates. So far, I always marveled at the beauty of its design. But this time, the efficiency I appreciated only stank of cold, anesthetic precision. It didn’t provide any comfort to my troubled thoughts.
There was nothing to do but go to the oncology appointment to get the answers I was craving. Before I even entered the facility, every data point from the sensors in my smart clothes, the digital tattoos lining my arms and the chips under my skin were synchronized with the medical records they had about me.
I saw my physical activity, sleep patterns, eating habits, blood pressure and body temperature levels – recorded constantly without my interaction – flashed by on the screen I checked into in the waiting room. Relevant items from my medical history, previously ingested medications and major health events of my life appeared and pointed out basic issues while I waited for cancer diagnostics. Results showed I go out too often with friends drinking and I don’t exercise enough the day after. It concluded such behavior doesn’t contribute to my physical well-being. I disagreed, those were my favorite days.
I was prescribed a PET scan that a medical robot conducted right away. Combining the PET scan results with biomarkers from my blood only took seconds for Omega. I had signs of early stage liver cancer. I felt devastated.
I knew cancer was only a chronic disease..
Sure, it could be treated with a personalized combination of therapies, but I still felt like the room was spinning. The robot nurse attending me was programmed to be attentive and supportive, but I just wanted a human face to talk to.
I received a message on my phone with a long list of things to do. It told me the personalized medications to take, the closest automated pharmacy that can 3D print them, how much they cost and how effective they are based on studies. My calendar was instantly rearranged to ensure my lifestyle maximized chances of beating the disease. No more martial arts for me in the foreseeable future, but daily, mild exercise and a better diet to lessen the medication side effects, if there were any.
My insurance was upgraded to the cancer package, which meant Omega would gain access to even private details of my life, from urine quality, sexual habits, and complete control over my daily schedule. It’s all taken care of. I just have to follow instructions and watch out for notifications. It seemed I would receive the best care available tailored to my molecular makeup and personal needs. I was in good hands.
I wanted nothing more than to join my friends.. to see friendly, empathetic faces.
The screen in front of me flashed a request to confirm with my fingerprint. I hesitated, but I knew that my insurance premium would jump sky high if I didn’t follow the optimal treatment plan. So I put my finger to the cold glass of the display, becoming a cancer patient in minutes while I should’ve been listening to my favorite band.
I was supposed to feel relieved but everything happened so fast and I didn’t have time to digest the news. Something was missing. Maybe a word with someone who knows what to say after such a diagnosis. But the hospital had no medical staff capable of comforting me.
My grandfather was a physician in the 2000s when it was one of the highest paying and most respected jobs. My father told me stories about how the old man used to treat people and how much they liked him. I always felt that time was barbaric – Grandpa had to measure even basic health parameters at the clinic and tried to make the best decisions about treatment based on just a few years of training and a couple dozens of studies and medical journals he read. He had no idea if patients complied with his therapy because there were no implanted microchips around. Without Omega, they couldn’t catch diseases early. That used to make me feel confident in my health and the attention of Omega.
But for some reason, now I’m worried. It would be great to talk to someone who has been through this. There is nobody to call. I know my friends received a notification about my diagnosis, but they also know I’m in good hands. They don’t know what this feels like. They may not even call.
Maybe that’s what we have lost on the way to a better life. Empathy.
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Before Omega, there were apps that were meant to reduce anxiety for patients with serious diagnoses by talking them through the process and answering questions. But it was not a real person and an app couldn’t mimic empathy. It just made users feel more alone. When artificial intelligence took charge of our health, it turned out programming empathic behaviour was more challenging than teaching a program how to fly a plane or to design surgical plans.
I guess in spite of all our technological advances, we’re still human inside. We still want a human to comfort us when we are vulnerable and our life is about to change completely.
My phone just buzzed again. My customized medication arrived by drone to keep me healthy.