Like many people, I was horrified when the Snowden leaks revealed the massive NSA spying apparatus that was invading the privacy of millions of Americans. I was disturbed at how the government was using its power to abuse the privacy rights of average Americans without respecting the Constitution.
Privacy is important. Without it, we are not free to be ourselves and feel comfortable in our own skin. We risk being falsely charged with crimes we didn't commit. It promotes an unfair power relationship between those in charge and the governed. There's a reason why the Stasi existed--to suppress people.
However, privacy also has its limits. This is especially true as new medical technologies become available. IBM's Watson, the computer which was able to understand natural human language and beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! has now gone to medical school. Watson is able to read over 4 million medical journal articles and process entire libraries of medical records and data in a matter of seconds. Using this information, Watson is able to diagnose diseases and suggest medical treatments with varying levels of confidence based upon percentages. Working with a doctor, Watson can suggest treatments that might otherwise be beyond the ability of a doctor to put together. Studies have shown that the average doctor is so busy he or she only has the time to read about five medical journal articles per month in his or her chosen field. The demands of economics require these doctors to see a massive number of patients to be able to sustain his or her medical practice. This does not lend them time for additional research.
Advances in DNA analysis and genomics allow the human genome to be sequenced for about $1,000. Within a few years, this cost will be $100. The human bacterial microbiome is also being sequenced. By collecting this data on a mass scale, comparing the results with disease profiles, and then analyzing this data, Watson will be able to come up with new treatments for diseases that would be impossible for the average human to figure out unaided. The problem is that current privacy regulations greatly reduce the ability of such scanning to take place. Most of the reason for this is to protect consumers against unfair targeting by health insurers if they discover someone has an expensive disease. The same goes for employers firing people for having expensive diseases. These problems would be non-existent if we had a functioning health care system. These are legislative issues, not technical ones.
Smartphones are becoming smarter and smarter. The proliferation of self-monitoring devices permits data to be collected that formerly was impossible. This allows small changes in one's vital statistics to help indicate the early signs of disease. "Prevention", as Benjamin Franklin once said, is "Worth a pound of cure." Imagine this data being stored and analyzed in the cloud by Watson to find new patterns in disease pathology. It would be a real paradigm shift away from what is done now.
Solving the problem of privacy should involve a program that redacts the personal information of patients while permitting medical data to be centrally stored on electronic servers and made accessible for big data analysis. This will help preserve privacy while still permitting computer intelligence to help solve some of our most difficult medical problems like heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Technology is leverage. Just as we cannot go 60 mph without an automobile, we won't be curing cancer without the assistance of artificial intelligence. Overcoming problems is what humans do. Tools exist for this purpose. We owe it to humanity to solve these problems because we can. Let's get to it.
Watson Treating Cancer Demo
Watson Goes to Medical School
The Quantified Self
Smartphone Medical Devices