Next year, when IBM's Watson computer competes live against human contestants on Jeopardy, think of this: The machine might be your next doctor.

A projected doctor shortage has been making headlines in the U.S. since the passage in March of health-care reform, which is expected to give 32 million more Americans health insurance by 2014. At the same time, enrollment in medical schools is going down. One report by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortfall of 150,000 doctors in the U.S. in the next 15 years. Europe, Japan, New Zealand and other countries are facing similar challenges in health care.

Most of the proposed solutions involve incentives to get more students into medical schools. There's another way to attack the problem: create artificial intelligence doctors that can handle a lot of routine medical questions, easing the traffic to doctors to check out a rash or a child's fever. Sure, robots may not have the same bedside manner as human doctors. But the idea is that they wouldn't replace doctors, but would allow the human physicians to focus on more serious care.

Building a Robot Doctor

The idea is not so far-fetched. Technology is emerging that could handle some medical diagnosis through a laptop or smart phone. And there's no question that a robot computer could be loaded chock full of information. IBM's massive Watson computing system, for example, has been loaded with millions of pages of information from everything from classic novels to Wikipedia to books of historical sports statistics.

But being a doctor requires more than just knowledge. At the heart of Watson is software called DeepQA, which allows the computer to understand Jeopardy's often-tricky questions, and in a split second find the most likely answer out of millions of possible answers in all that stored data. The software will be tested in public sometime in 2011, when IBM's Watson is expected to play on Jeopardy. As it is, the massive computing system has been playing practice rounds in a mock studio against former Jeopardy winners, and Watson has been winning more than half the time.

IBM believes DeepQA will have plenty of applications beyond talk shows – including health care. Imagine if the same kind of system was loaded with every medical reference book and scientific study and information about prescription drugs, along with the latest news about flu outbreaks, weather or other factors that might impact health. A patient could then access a DeepQA doctor over the Web, ask questions and get informed and knowledgeable answers.

There's already a crude version of this on the Web – a site called Doctor Robot, created by Russian physician Aleksandr Kavokin. It asks patients to fill out a questionnaire, and attempts to match answers with a possible diagnosis.

Robot Doc's Special Features

Other new technologies could also help create a sophisticated computer doctor. Scientists keep improving machine vision, which enables a computer to analyze an image – so you could send a computer doctor an image of your rash, for instance. Wearable devices like Fitbit can track exercise and calories burned and automatically send the data into the network for use by a computer doc. Apps on smart phones could help patients keep track of other health information and send it into the system.

And efforts continue to make individual health records electronic, so a computer doc would have access to your medical history. Companies such as 23andMe offer genetic analysis that can identify predisposition for certain diseases, something else that could help an online physician with a diagnosis.

The X Prize Foundation is doing its part to make sure computer-based doctors become reality. The X Prize, which funded the contest to build an aircraft that could reach space and return to land at an air strip, this summer announced a $10 million prize to create an artificial intelligence physician. The prize will go to "the first team to build an artificial intelligence system that can offer a medical diagnosis as good as or better than a diagnosis from a group of 10 board-certified doctors." It also should be accessible through a cell phone.

Of course, there are major concerns about privacy and the acceptance of such systems by the medical profession and general public. The big question will be whether society is ready to trust health care and health data to the network. But the doctor shortage may force those issues. Long waits at doctors' offices and primary physicians refusing to add new patients might convince the public to try computer doctors, especially if Watson does well on his test.

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Hell, I thought my doctor WAS a robot.

August 24 2010 at 12:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


August 23 2010 at 11:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Robot surgeons will do an excellent job. But robot doctors may prove to be a problem since their bedside manners may be too cold and mechanical.

August 23 2010 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I called robot doctors mediunits in my book THE MADHOUSE PROJECTS which was published in 2002. When I told a woman that robots would someday be in the operating room, she said she hoped that would never happen. She better not need an operation next year because a mediunit might be the head of surgery in the hospital she uses.

August 23 2010 at 11:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

NO ROBOTS! That has got to be the worst idea I have ever heard. Does no one learn anything from those movies that see robots taking over humans??? Now I really have no idea if that could actually happen but you never know. We were put on this earth to take care of ourselves and each other not to build a robot to do that. Robots are a TERRIBLE idea. People are already glued to their technology such as computers and cell phones. We would practically be useless if robots came into the mix. If they did start having robot doctors, eventually there would be no use for a human doctor and alot of people would be out of jobs. All around a stupid idea, end of story.

August 23 2010 at 11:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

what a scam! big pharma and the insurance companies best interest will be programed into these robots!

August 23 2010 at 10:56 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I can see the robot being a doctors consultant or a nurses aide.Many times a nurse or doctor does not ask a specific question.And if that question goes unanswered can result in a misdiagnoses.Humans are fallible.They cannot possibly remember every question they were trained to ask.Vital information can be missed.You sit in a room waiting for a nurse or doctor anyways for 15-30 minutes or more.I would rather talk to a robot during that time spilling my guts as to everything that is wrong with me.This communicaton could result in an important question that I need to ask the doctor but would not have or forgot.There are already robotic surgeons.Especially with eye and brain operations.There are things a robot can do where humans cannot and vice-a-versa to.I would trust a robot with a laser more than a doctor with a hand held laser.

August 23 2010 at 10:53 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Sounds as good as the person that invented the automated phone directoy......."Press 1 now"......."if your not getting the answer you want....please hang up and dial again".

August 23 2010 at 10:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

PLEASE listen to me. I am saying this from experience. We are tired of being attacked by lawyers on TV. We are tired of being paid only enough by insurance companys to pay our staff and Malpractice Insurance that goes up every year. We are tired of being judged by people who have no idea what its like to spend all the years on education only to be controlled by the gov. We want to help our patients however we can and still be able to sleep at night without worries of be taken to court over someone trying to win the lottery. We need more pay or cheaper cost of insurance. We need your support more now because of Obama now more than ever before. People are now seeing how hard it is to practice Medicine and they do not want to be Doctors anymore because of it. This health Reform is a load of bad things to come for us as practicing physicians and you as our patients. This will only get better as soon as we get the Lawyers under control in and out of our gov. I am sorry to say these things but they are plain and simply true. God Bless.

August 23 2010 at 10:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If people want to know answers to medical questions they can go to the Yahoo or Q&A and get an answer there. My mother wanted to be a doctor and went through the training so I always answer those questions. If they need a doctor, I'll be recommending a *doctor* and not a *robot*.

August 23 2010 at 10:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply