Humans, Technology, and the Asymptote Dilemma

Man and machine are on divergent paths and technology has the upper hand.

Posted Jul 19, 2018

Source: Pixabay

Yep. It’s data. Data that’s coming at us from four fundamental directions. And with these data streams, it’s a bit like drinking from four fire hoses at once. Healthcare is one the biggest contributors to this massive flow of data and there seems to be no end in sight.

Velocity. Moving from occasional, batch-to-batch delivery, today’s world is all about real-time. And interestingly, today’s news is already yesterday’s story. The real-time delivery of data is no longer an option, but an imperative that drives everything from business to our personal lives. And speed unlocks new services and opportunities.

Volume. It’s a lot. An interesting and often-quoted story from 2013 stated that 90 percent of all the world’s data has been created in the past two years. And I would imagine that it must be an even greater percentage by now. The volume of data, even by today's standards, is almost inconceivable, yet it continues to grow. Diagnostic imaging is an example where the data are exploding—with amazing and important advances in care.

Variety.  From MRIs to your smartphone, data generators are everywhere (and almost everything). The advances in digital health just add to the variety and the emergence of genomic testing typifies this growth.

Veracity. Today, data quality is central to the advances in informatics.  It's "less garbage in" and the subsequent enhancement of overall utility, particularly in analytics.

But the question remains: Just how effectively can we really drink out of these four fire hoses?

The reality seems to be less than we think we can. While the human capacity to assimilate and process information is massive, it's not endless. Yet the expansion of data—across these four domains seems boundless. And here come the two mathematical curves that follow different paths. Our human path will inevitably reach a threshold, limited by biological structure and function. That "human information curve" will asymptotically rest against that threshold, while data continues its exponential trajectory.

So, it looks like it comes down to "man versus machine."

So, let me start by providing a preemptive apology for that inconsiderate reference to "those machines," as they will be reading this story too. Now, of course, the collaborative arrangement for data and AI to work for and with humanity is the obvious solution. Yet the inevitability of this engagement is often met with reluctance and apprehension, particularly in medicine. The human connection is often cited as the essential component of care that represents medicine at its core. Yet the percentage contribution of technology and data to society will continue to grow and the human contribution, by definition, will diminish. If you follow the curves, they diverge and the mathematical limits imposed by this construct force the human component to approach zero.

Now take deep breath.

As technology expands its component of the mix, there always remains (following the same mathematical device of limits) the component of humanity—approaching zero, but never getting there. Maybe it's this proverbial "spark of life" that ultimately defines the difference between "man and machine" and that spark may actually create a deep chasm that is more vast and differentiating than we, meager mortals, could have ever imagined. It's a chasm that may be the firewall between technology's intrusion and mankind's dominion—at least when you do the math.

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