In Her, Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning romance between a man and his operating system, we are pushed to reevaluate our relationships with computers. If it could listen and respond intelligently to your every concern, would you prefer dating a computer over a distracted, self-involved human? But for me, it’s not in my love life that I feel most replaceable. It’s in my choice of profession—medicine.
It started innocently enough. Robots like the DaVinci surgical system behaved as tools, needing the hands of their masters to function. Then some advanced past mechanical labor to read and write, and became a little less deferent. Electronic health records stop doctors if we prescribe the wrong medications or if we forget to ask the right questions at an annual checkup.
Now machines have become stand-ins. Virtual avatars called “relational agents” handle daily conversations to motivate weight loss and “watch” while patients take their medications. And their diagnostic skills are improving: In January 2013, a group from Indiana University achieved 41.9% better diagnostic accuracy with their artificial intelligence algorithm than trained physicians. Four years of medical school and five-plus years of residency later, we’ve got nothing on Her.