March 23, 2018
When I woke up on Wednesday, March 14, I heard the news that the most famous physicist in the world had passed away.
My first thought was to hope it was peaceful. The man who defied science and medical estimations - that he wouldn’t see his 25th birthday - and who, as Ian Sample, Editor of Science for the Guardian put it, “made intuitive leaps that will keep scientists busy for decades”, has sailed on to a new world at the age of 76.
This man could be the superhero of our time because he lived through his disease, defining as early as the 80s how technology would play a key role in healthcare and the wellbeing of humankind.
This is what the transhumanists believe in, that sophisticated technologies are able to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology. Stephen Hawking, in his own time and way, was a pioneer in the use of technologies to help him survive with his condition. He didn’t become The Six Million Dollar Man, or some sort of RoboCop, but he proved to the world that if your body is letting you down, the strength of your mind can overpower it. He regularly expressed concerns and warnings about the negative possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI), including the belief it should be controlled to prevent it from destroying the human race, but he was a believer in research to maximise benefits and minimise risks.
AI is a subject which has been nourishing fantasies for decades, through comic books, futurist novels, movies and TV shows and scientists have been working on it in every single way possible. I’d like to focus on how the development of technologies has been used to help improve our wellness and our health. Each time I read or talk about this topic, it reminds me of late Robin Williams wonderfully impersonating a robot desperate to become human in Bicentennial Man (1999).
The medical sector has taken giant steps over the past century since the discovery of penicillin by Fleming in 1928. At the time it would have been impossible to foresee the impact AI would have on many sectors, including healthcare. Yet now, according to an OpinionWay survey for Mazars consulting firm, 76% of French people think that AI and new technologies in this sector can be useful for people suffering from a specific condition, as well as the most vulnerable ones.
Paradoxically, another study published earlier this month shows that France is still behind other countries in embracing e-health, especially compared to countries as advanced in the area as the USA, the UK and Australia as well as Scandanavia and the EU in general. Australia, for example, adopted its Digital Health Strategy in 2016, with a 463 million dollar budget allocated for the first two years. The goal is to set up a platform called “My Health Record” to access patients’ digital medical files, work on the security of data sharing and support the development of digital healthcare. Norway dedicated 750 million euros to their e-health strategy ‘One Citizen - One Health Record’ launched in 2016. More examples in other countries have shown this step forward in e-health.
French people are not keen on being left behind in this great scientific adventure. Indeed, the above mentioned OpinionWay study also shows a surprising 33% of French respondents are ready to use telemedicine. A quite high percentage considering that there are still a lot of fears around the use of technologies in healthcare. As Lovecraft put it, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” and that’s what makes the adoption of e-health slower in some countries. Just like everything that’s new, not easy to understand and unconventional, it needs to be shown and explained and a majority of people need to be reassured before they are able to step out of their comfort zone. After all, in the end, what we’re talking about here is care and comfort.
There is still a need to put an end to the preconceptions that fantasies have created about technology taking over humankind but for now, we have a way to improve life. To support this argument, another survey conducted in February by Odoxa shows that the development of e-health is a source of hope for 63% of French people, most of whom confirm they don’t know exactly what its innovations are.
Support from the top
What stands out is that younger generations (72% of 18-25-year-olds) are keener than older generations (65%) to embrace connected healthcare. Reluctance can be attributed to a lack of good information and the demonization of technologies in this area. In France, the current Macron government is increasingly communicating about these innovations. Since becoming president, Macron has led many initiatives in favour of businesses and especially in tech, encouraging the development of medical platforms and unlocking government funding for small businesses with French organization Bpi France, which specializes in such initiatives. On March 14 they announced the release of 26 million euros to support small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). They’re also very active in promoting technological training in schools and universities, which positions France as a key player in the ecosystem and will help change views on health tech.
However, we still have a long way to go compared to other countries, such as Iceland for instance which, for geographical reasons, has adopted telemedicine to provide medical care in areas more difficult to access. They’ve been working on telemedicine since 1996 and are now using the AGNES Interactive telemedicine platform, in order for consulting specialists to help treat patients in real-time.
We’ve made tremendous progress since Fleming’s discovery. Scientists and doctors are not going to stop looking for ways to improve medical research and the human condition anytime soon. Who knows, maybe in a few centuries from now, we’ll be able to transfer our mind to another body, like humans do in recently acclaimed Netflix show Altered Carbon, based on a sci-fi novel and released earlier this year, and AI will definitely be a part of the ride.