United States-based speaker, author and futurist Jack Uldrich was in Johannesburg recently for the 2017 Future of Health Summit held by FORBES AFRICA and Philips. Amid all the talk about AI eye robots, virtual nurses, the potential for blockchain to transform electronic health records, and even the inception of ‘uber-ambulances’ as one doctor in the audience proposed, Uldrich spoke some more to FORBES AFRICA about what the future holds for technology, healthcare and life:
Technology companies will lead the future of healthcare. Tell us more.
From my perspective, it’s all about data. Amazon, Google, even Facebook, know so much about us, they are going to figure out how to use data to keep us healthy, and they are going to figure out how to make money keeping us healthy, using data.
Which means people will probably live a lot longer – how is technology going to aid longevity?
Longevity is a wonderful problem to have but it is going to impose serious societal pressures on government. In the West, our social security systems are geared for a life expectancy of below 80, but we are going to be living to a 90 and potentially a 100. Africa might not be that high yet, but society is going to have to deal with this; public policy-makers will have to deal with thinking about this issue yesterday.
What will be interesting is we might begin to rewrite social contracts, in the sense that if we live to be a 100, maybe it will make sense for young parents to spend a lot more time, when they are in their 2os and 30s, understanding that they will be able to work full-time from 40 to 90 years of age for example. There will be a lot of different potential solutions to this and we have to get creative.
8,000 days of the internet; what will another 8,000 days mean for the internet?
This is where people have to understand exponential growth. Without a doubt, the internet has been transformative, but we are still in the early days of this revolution, and we are next going to move to the Internet of Things, and the transition is as though we are looking in the internet. Information and data is going to be all around us and we are going to be able to leverage that data to understand our health better, and to use that information to engage in healthier behaviour that keeps us healthy.
What next after the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things are, in my mind, interchangeable terms, but we are just at the beginning. Today, 20 billion physical objects are connected to the internet, by 2020, an estimated 50 billion, and by 2030, a trillion. But that means our wearable devices, our electronic health records, our rooms, are all going to be connected, and we are going to be able to leverage that data to do, think and act differently about our health in the very near future.
Will robots ever replace us fully?
I don’t think they will fully replace us. The way I think about technology and humans is this: we just celebrated the 20th anniversary of a computer beating the world’s best chess player. Computers have gotten significantly smarter in the last 20 years but there is still one thing that can still beat the world’s most powerful computer in chess, and that’s an average chess player using an average computer. Human experience, intuition, plus technology take us to a higher level and when I think about the future of physicians, other healthcare professionals, those that thrive are going to be those that leverage technology and let technology do what it does really well, and then we will focus on the more human aspect. And for healthcare, this is really important. People don’t just want the best treatment; they want to be heard, they want to understand their options for disease and treatment. Could a computer do that? Yes, but I think that humans for the foreseeable future will be significantly better.
Are virtual nurses considered far more effective than real nurses?
If I have any advice about the future, it is to learn how to embrace ambiguity.
We frequently like to think the world is going to happen one way or another way. And virtual nurses are a wonderful example. In the West, many patients prefer being checked out by virtual nurses, and that’s because they don’t feel judged, they can ask as many questions, and because of that, they are getting better information. So let’s allow the virtual nurses to check people out of the hospital, which then frees up the nurse to spend a lot more time on the human aspects and taking care of patients. The human touch is really important to the recovery process and if we can have more healthcare professionals engaging in real human activities, that’s a wonderful thing.
What about the new AI eye doctor that Google has come up with, and putting to work in India?
Google has collected millions of images of the eyes of patients with diabetes, and from those images, we can now engage in preventative actions that will prevent potentially hundreds of thousands of people from going blind. They are going from India to Africa to the entire world.
Your take on self-driving cars…?
In every city around the world, the average automobile sits idle 22 hours a day so that is a waste of capital resource. In a world of driverless vehicles, we are going to be able to have fewer vehicles, but we are still going to be able to get people from their destinations, and what this means is people will start trading ownership of cars for access. But these vehicles will be clean, safe and cost a fraction of what we spend on transportation.
In the future, transportation is going to be thought of as a service much like electricity, in the sense that you will just pay for the transportation that you need, for the kilometers you drive or are driven.
Will the seat configurations change in a driverless vehicle; do we still sit in the front?
If you own a driverless vehicle, you can sit wherever you like, and for the near future, you will sit where you traditionally sit, but as you grow more comfortable with it, you might sit in the back and then we are going to start redesigning, and instead of all of the seats facing forward, we might actually face one another and have conversations with our peers, but here’s where it gets interesting. People will still own vehicles, but because of blockchain technology, they might be able to share that vehicle with strangers and rent out that vehicle when they are not using it, and make money off of that vehicle.
Objects that will alert us to heart attacks before it happens; is this technology available now?
The idea of a heart attack ringtone is being worked on. There is a doctor in San Diego named Dr Eric Topol who has spoken about this idea for a few years. Computer chips are becoming small enough that we can already put them in the human body, and those computer chips have sensors and we can now detect the proteins that float around in our bodies that are indicative that you are about to have a heart attack. So that computer chip will be able to alert you and your healthcare provider even before a heart attack happens, and you will be able to take preventative action.
It’s not science fiction, it is science fact.
What is the zaniest thing you have heard about the future, say five years from now?
Within the next five years, the possibility that we are going to be able to begin 3D-printing human organs is a possibility. In 10 years, the odds increase even more. But in five years, there is a chance it may happen. What is crazy is today a car can be a 100 years old, but you can keep it operating because you just get it a new motor or a new pump, but we might begin thinking about the human body that way. Your part might go, but we might just print you a new one using your stem cells that we know will work in your body. But we need to begin to think that just because we can, is this necessarily a wise path that we can take, and this is where we need philosophers, citizens and politicians, etc to engage.
Do we really need to live that long? Is it going to be economically viable?
At this stage, what I tell people is let us give up on answers, let us just stick to questions for the time being. We need to ask better questions about the future, and this idea of longevity and 3D-printing human body parts… we need to ask a lot of questions about these and many other issues.
Where is Africa in terms of advances in tech?
Africa is behind today but the potential to rapidly catch up to the US is a real possibility because virtually every technology is not only getting better, it is getting more affordable. In many cases, counter intuitively, the infrastructure of the West and our powerful political organizations might actually slow down some innovation. And I think the opportunity for Africa to not only catch up but to also potentially leapfrog in some areas is a real possibility, and I think the West should have some humility and begin looking to Africa for innovations that I think are really going to surprise us, just as the way mobile payment took off in Kenya. I think the West might need to catch up to Africa in some cases as well.