The Robotic Future: Fixing Bodies Like Fixing Cars

There’s a technological revolution knocking at the door of our healthcare system.

It will increase speed and accuracy in diagnosis.

It will transform home health care and provide surgeons with the tools to operate remotely.

It will offer Canada the opportunity to build a better, more efficient, less costly healthcare system.

Robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing will eventually take us to a place where the average person will be able to anticipate his or her own heart attack, get immediate notice of insulin deficiency or get body parts artificially renewed and replaced in hours.

People will come to expect the same service on their bodies as they get now for their cars. Whatever the ailment, they will want it fixed today – not months or even years from now.

Currently, you might have the most brilliant surgeon on the planet, but there is absolutely no guarantee you will get to see him or her before it’s too late.

In short, with the arrival of artificial intelligence in medicine people will be even less willing to wait for treatment and it’s going to take planning and a significant change in institutional culture if our current system is going to cope with these kinds of demands.

Canadian researchers have done amazing work in getting us to this stage and the government must nurture that energy and innovation and capitalize on it.

Members of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology spent a fascinating four months hearing from expert witnesses and visiting Ottawa-area universities and hospitals where these technologies are being developed.

We witnessed the 3D production of a brace for a broken knuckle. It took 15 minutes using a portable machine.

In our newly released report on the potential impact of AI, robotics and 3D printing on health care, our primary recommendation is for the federal government to convene a recurring national conference that would include a broad range of professionals from the healthcare system, government, Indigenous community and, of course, those who are developing and refining the technologies.

That intitial conference would create expert working groups representing the various stakeholders and a secretariat to co-ordinate the ongoing work and report progress to the federal government.

We chose this route because of the need for Canada to stay on the leading edge of these technologies and to monitor the ethical and social challenges they will undoubtledly unleash.

Patient privacy is an obvious concern for us and so is the need for humans to remain in control. We envision robots as mechanical assistants to healthcare and social workers, relieving them of many routine, menial tasks. Robots should not be in charge.

Within the healthcare system, there will be job losses, jobs created and tasks within existing jobs that will change. The technological revolution that society in general has experienced during the past two decades has shown those types of changes to be inevitable.

Above all, we will have to educate both healthcare workers and their patients to build trust in these new and developing technologies. For example, if artificial intelligence disagrees with the doctor’s diagnosis or method of treatment, who or what does the patient believe? Will the doctor be prepared to accept that perhaps the robot has got it right?

We don’t have all the answers – nobody does – but we heard and saw enough from a variety of witnesses to convince us that sitting back and waiting for change to happen is not an option. We have to be proactive, and we have to be prepared.

This op-ed was co-authored by Senator Kelvin Kenneth Ogilvie and Senator Art Eggleton, P.C. Senator Ogilvie is the chair of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology and Senator Eggleton is its deputy chair.