Cal Newport has something sane to say about AI — and medicine, and much else

technology computer head health

Here’s a great conversation between the eminently sane and insightful David Epstein and Cal Newport about AI. Their takes on the way doctors and diagnostic medicine may be affected by practical AI is very good and more or less squares with my own.

DE: Now for an optimistic question. You mention in the article that “ChatGPT won’t replace doctors, but it might make their jobs easier by automatically generating patient notes from electronic medical-record entries.” I was wondering if perhaps it will fundamentally change the job in another way. Back in the 1950s, psychologist Paul Meehl was showing that healthcare professionals would often make better predictions about what would help a patient by relying upon actuarial tables rather than their subjective judgment. (This isn’t to pick on healthcare. In basically every field Meehl examined, simple actuarial tables made better predictions than seasoned professionals.) So I kind of think we’re probably overdue for some ubiquitous decision aids in a bunch of fields. I wonder if AI can fundamentally alter healthcare (and other jobs) to allow humans to focus more on the areas where we can uniquely add value. If a lot of diagnosing can be automated, say, then maybe the more important skill for a doctor becomes understanding the context of a patient’s life and spending more time strategizing with them about how to respond to a diagnosis. 

Or to give an analogy I like: a few years ago I was looking at news coverage from the early 1970s when the ATM was introduced. Some of the coverage was apocalyptic — 300,000 bank tellers are going to be out of work overnight! But instead, over the next 50 years, as there were more ATMs, there were more bank tellers. ATMs made branches cheaper to operate, so banks opened more branches. Fewer tellers per branch, but more tellers overall. But more than that, it fundamentally changed the job, from one of repetitive cash transactions, to one where the person is, say, a customer service rep, a marketing professional, a financial adviser, etc. They needed a much broader mix of more strategic skills to add value. Do you think there’s any chance that we come up with a bunch of applications where this new technology frees people to spend more time in the more strategic parts of work? 

CN: The doctor example is an interesting one. As noted in my above answer, we do have pretty good diagnosis-support technology. It didn’t end up mattering much yet, however, because most doctors actually spend very little time doing Dr. House-style complicated diagnoses. In 99% of the cases, it’s really obvious what’s going on, so taking the time to query some IBM system doesn’t save much time.

That being said, I think this is, eventually, where AI will most fruitfully impact knowledge work: by automating the logistical wrangling and administrative conversations that take up so much of our time today in the form of email, slack, and meetings. If AI can stop the average knowledge worker from checking his inbox once every 5 minutes, it could, effectively, double, if not triple, the amount of high value output he could produce. This would be my dream: a simplified workday, with more deep work and less exhausting context switching. I don’t know if ChatGPT is what will get us there, but we will probably get there one way or another as the money at stake is massive.

DE: That would be great! You just reminded me of a talk I saw by computer scientist Pedro Domingos, in which he said that people are busy worrying about smart machines running the world, meanwhile stupid machines are running the world.

From Range Widely, “Inside the “Mind” of ChatGPT.” Computer scientist Cal Newport lifts up the GPT hood, and talks with me about whether it will replace and/or nuke you
Dan Knauss

Dan Knauss

Hi, this is my CMT blog, and I wrote this article. You can read about me and my CMT story. Get in touch if you’d like; I’m always happy to answer questions about CMT and the medical system.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: