The Robots Are Coming... and Want You to Be a Better Engineer

Depending on whom you ask, technology is either in the process of either destroying countless jobs previously performed by humans or it will help usher us into a nearly utopian existence—one that has whole new kinds of employment opportunities, mind you. There are more nuanced arguments that fall between those two spectrums, of course, but most people tend to fall into one of those two camps.

Last year, the Associated Press declared that technology had obliterated millions of middle-class jobs in developed nations across the planet. Evidence of technology’s potential to replace human workers can now be seen everywhere: assembly workers being replaced by robots, bank tellers displaced by ATMs, and travel agents being made obsolete by the likes of Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, and so forth. Only a few years ago, IBM's Watson bested human opponents in Jeopardy! More recently, the platform showed that it could diagnose cancer more accurately than doctors.

So what does this mean for the medical device industry? And why does the belief that technology is stealing jobs have such staying power? This idea was initially made popular by textile artisans in Britain who came to be known as Luddites, who were protested against powered textile looms and other Industrial Revolution Age machines.

Robot image courtesy of epSos.de
Robot image courtesy of epSos.de

While modern-day Luddites make numerous good arguments, correctly observing technology’s negative effects on everything from privacy to the demise of moderately skilled but highly paid jobs, the antitechnology argument is bound to lose in the long run.

For medtech engineers, it’s more proactive to become an expert in software and to strive to optimize your creativity and ability to optimize the processes used to design and create medical technology. Rote tasks and busywork will mostly likely be automated sooner or later. Try to find out how, and actively streamline processes instead of worrying which ones will be automated. At the same time, make the most out of your complex problem solving skills and imagination—neither of which can be easily automated.

Engineers that can help shape the software will have a unique advantage in the medtech space, as software will only have a growing role in designing medical devices—not to mention imbuing them with new features and functionality.

Importantly, engineers who can code are more likely to be able to leverage computers’ intelligence to extend their own talent. In addition, electronic medical records now plays a critical role in tracking patient data, and medical devices could play a key role in feeding them with valuable data as the demand for evidenced-based data-supported medicine grows.

In any case, the list of tasks that computers can’t do is surely getting smaller by the day. In the future, artificial intelligence could perform many actions currently performed by highly trained professionals—including engineers, attorneys, and doctors. Already, algorithms are now employed to do everything from doing legal research to writing financial reports to controlling Google’s driverless cars. Imagine what computers can do ten years from now...

But it’s unlikely that we have to fear a Skynet-like self-aware artificial intelligence that values itself more than humanity. A more productive strategy is to play an active role in applying computing and artificial intelligence to supplement human creativity and passion.

Learn more about how robots can be used to collaborate with humans on the shop floor, which will be discussed at the at MD&M Texas conference by Dan Popa, Multiscale Robotics professor, UTA on May 8.

A relevant parable here comes from the chess world. In 2005, the site playchess.com launched a so-called “freestyle” chess tournament that permitted human players to team up with computers. In the semifinals, humans working with machines handily beat the most advanced chess software of the day. Hydra, a chess supercomputer, was no match for grandmasters working with a laptop. More surprising was the ultimate winner of the contest: two amateur U.S. players working with three laptops proved that they could defeat powerful chess computers as well as grandmasters using software to augment their skills. They did so by optimizing the process that their computers used to analyze moves. As Russian chess wizard Garry Kasparov explained: “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.” 17 years ago, Kasparov, then a world chess champion, had been defeated by IBM chess computer Deep Blue.

Bringing this back to the medical device realm, if amateur chess players actively and creatively collaborating with artificial intelligence can win an international no-holds-barred chess competition—one that permits chess grandmasters and computers to work together—imagine what engineers working with AI can do to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare.

A couple of years ago, prominent venture capitalist Vinod Khosla mused that algorithms could potentially do a better job than doctors at the vast majority of tasks they do on a daily basis. "Eighty percent of what doctors do, tech can do at a fraction of the cost," Khosla explained at TechCrunch Disrupt SF last year. While there’s no replacing doctors’ intuition and experience treating patients face-to-face, automating medicine could certainly help address the shortage of doctors and caregivers in the not too distant future. And if medicine stands to be automated, it puts engineers in the driver’s seat, as they would play a critical role in doing the automating.

The robots are coming all right... Now what are you going to do about it?

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz and Google+.