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Surprising Science

The Device That Will Make Millions of Doctors Obsolete

A $10 million competition to create a mobile device that can diagnose illnesses could threaten to replace doctors in less than a decade. 

What’s the Big Idea?

With robots and technology threatening to make whole entire professions obsolete, could doctors be the next group to bite the dust? 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. 

What’s the Significance?

Imagine if your iPhone could detect cancer. Or if people in remote parts of Alaska or Africa could consult a portable device rather than having to trek hundreds of miles to the nearest hospital. Not only would a device like this drastically improve quality of health and early detection of life-threatening illnesses, it will also help to curtail spiraling health costs, lessening the burden of health care on the economy. 

But this discovery might not bode well for all: countless of the United States’s 352,908 primary care physicians and nurses could see their jobs become obsolete—or at least they would have to significantly change their specialization in reaction to this new technology. On the other hand, the U.S. currently faces a shortage of doctors, as the ranks of the insured grow with Obama’s health care reform. Perhaps this is exactly the sort of innovation necessary to keep our health care industry functioning. 

Why Should You Care?

The tricorder is just one example of the broader battle between man and machine that looms as technology explodes exponentially. While this progress is inevitable, you can better position yourself for these changes to come by knowing exactly what they will be and by understanding what the jobs of the future will look like.

Most likely, all jobs that can be done by robots will be done by robots, so it’s important to understand the limitations of machines. In a recent Big Think interview, Dr. Kaku discussed exactly this, telling us which industries would be the first to yield to the machines. 

“Robots have very bad eyesight. They see lines, circles, squares, but they don’t understand that these lines, circles, squares make up a face or a chair or a cup. Pattern recognition is one of the big problems. Second, common sense: they don’t understand the simplest things about human behavior, about the world.  They don’t know that water is wet;  they don’t know that strings can pull but cannot push.

So the two jobs that will thrive in the future and the two sets of jobs that will be destroyed are as follows: Among blue collar jobs, repetitive jobs are going to be wiped out, obliterated. Jobs in the automobile industry, textile industry that are purely repetitive are in danger.  Non-repetitive jobs in blue collar work will thrive, garbage men, sanitation people, gardeners, police, construction workers. 

In white collar work it defies common sense.  The people who will be thrown out of work are middlemen, low level accountants, bookkeepers, agents, tellers, middlemen; the friction of capitalism are going to be obliterated.  So who will benefit among white collar workers?  Workers who engage in intellectual capitalism.  What is intellectual capitalism?  It involves common sense, in other words, creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, telling a joke, writing a script, writing a book, doing science.”


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