Health Care and Education Will Be Among the First to Fall to Our Robot Overlords


Tim Lee has become bearish on the future of disruptive technological change:

“Who knows? But it will come!” has become the de facto rallying cry for a lot of recent Silicon Valley innovations with more hype than obvious applications….But it-will-come-ism has fallen flat in recent years, and I think it’s going to continue failing in the years to come. There are a number of industries — with health care and education being the most important — where there’s an inherent limit on how much value information technology can add. Because in these industries, the main thing you’re buying is relationships to other human beings, and those can’t be automated.

None of us can really adduce much evidence for our various points of view in this debate, but that’s never stopped anyone before. So I’ll draw a line in the sand and say that Lee is completely, totally, devastatingly wrong.

He may be right over the next decade. Maybe even the next two decades. But that’s about it. We will soon discover that not only can relationships be automated,1 many humans will come to prefer silicon service providers to the carbon variety. That’s especially true in areas like health care and education, where subject matter knowledge is critically important.

Take education first. Sure, we all have fond memories of our favorite teachers. And I suspect that classrooms may continue to exist for quite a while because humans do enjoy socializing with other humans. But your basic robot teacher has a whole lot of advantages over the meat variety. Endless patience. The ability to personalize teaching for every single student. 24/7 availability. Accurate, broad-based subject matter knowledge at every possible level. I’m sorry, Mom, but the robots will have you beat.2

And then there’s health care, where the days of the beloved small-town doctor have been long gone for decades. It’s already the case that lots of people—maybe even a majority—don’t have much of a personal relationship with their doctor even now, and this will probably just get worse over time. So which would you prefer? A human doctor who can chat about the weather but probably doesn’t because she’s allocated ten minutes to your office visit and needs to get down to business right away? Or a silicon doctor who knows more than the human, can spend more time with you than the human, and never makes mistakes? I’ll take the robot, thanks.

But wait. Maybe this is all true, but won’t we miss the warmth of human contact? I doubt it. We’ll still have plenty of human contact, after all. More generally, there’s a widespread belief that AI and robotics in general will never be able to simulate sociableness. I think this is due to a vast overestimate of how good humans are at distinguishing real from fake. People are taken in by fakes all the time, and it really doesn’t take much. An easy manner, a willingness to feign interest, and some sympathy for your complaints will do it most of the time. Even crude AI can sometimes pull off this act, and in a decade or two it will be pretty common. People will like their robots, just the way they like their cars and they like Siri.

In the end, robots will have all the obvious advantages of being robots and they’ll convincingly pretend to be warm and caring. But don’t feel bad, all you doctors and teachers. They’ll probably take over blogging before they take over your jobs.

1Don’t believe me? Have you ever watched a season of The Bachelor?

2Just kidding! Ha ha. Nobody will ever teach fourth grade the way you did, Mom. Seriously, um….oh man, I’m in trouble now.