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EQ vs IQ: Cognitive Computing and the Emotive Physician

Working at a technology company that has developed a cognitive computing platform, it’s hard to not ponder whether in ten years a computer will have your job. Skills I’ve worked very hard to master, like knowledge accumulation and recall, reading, and analysis are ones that platforms like ours find as easy to complete as setting my alarm to get up in the morning.

A long history of man vs. machine

I am certainly not the only one thinking about this. The debate over machine power dates as far back as the early 1800s when English textile workers, “Luddites,” sought to destroy looms that were taking their jobs. But the body of literature on this subject received an important addition last month, with the release of a paper by Harvard’s David J. Deming, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market” (as reported on by economist Tyler Cowen, the Harvard Business Review, and others).

Deming says that: “While computers perform cognitive tasks of rapidly increasing complexity, simple human interaction has proven difficult to automate…the labor market increasingly rewards social skills.” In other words, the roles that computers can’t do are ones that require social skills such as cooperation and empathy.

Moreover, “Since 1980, employment and wage growth has been particularly strong in occupations with high cognitive and social skill requirements. In contrast, employment has fallen in occupations with high math but low social skill requirements.” So, the need for social skills is affecting not just manufacturing jobs, but also high-cognition ones, jobs that were supposedly invulnerable to machine encroachment.

EQ vs. IQ: Traits that will be valued in future physicians

Deming’s findings have provocative implications for medicine, and point to the traits that will be valued in future physicians. In today’s healthcare ecosystem, we often value physicians for their skill as scientists, as master technicians of the human body. We rigorously test and measure physicians based on their knowledge of biology and disease, indeed it’s a large part of the way that students gain admittance to medical school and the way they become licensed as practicing physicians.

The “social skills” of physicians, their ability to perceive distress, to deduce social circumstance, and to understand how much handholding a patient needs, are less valorized. Ask yourself, would you book an appointment with a physician described as “emotional” or one described as “logical”?

In the future, with cognitive computing decision support, empathy skills will be all-important. The computer system will have a database of all the current best-practices for medical treatment and will be able to process a patient’s symptoms and “ask” follow-up questions. It will even be able to produce a recommended path of treatment, based on an analysis of the past medical experience of similar patients.

But it won’t be able to detect if a patient is telling the truth or has more to say, or if the patient wouldn’t be able to carry out a treatment plan because of their home situation. It won’t be able to comfort a patient when they receive a tough diagnosis or guide them to the follow-up provider who is best suited to their personality. This is because no matter how much treatment expertise a computer gets it won’t be able to sense and project emotion.

In the cognitive computing world, we, as patients, will need to value physicians for distinguishing between what a computer is telling them and what is in front of their face; we will need to praise them for their EQ as much as for their IQ.

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