Medical DiagnosisMedical Diagnosis

These diagnostic computers note the patient's symptoms - temperature pulse, number of white blood corpuscles, complaints - and then name the particular ailment from which the invalid is presumably suffering, make suggestions for prescriptions, give instructions for effecting a cure and refer to relevant passages in medical literature.

But these machines will have no practical value in medicine until they have "learned" tens of thousands of symptoms and thousands of diagnoses. As in the case of the chess-playing automaton, first-class specialists will have to "teach" them, reveal correct diagnoses to them and correct their mistakes. When we have reached that stage, the electronic diagnosticians may be a blessing. Naturally, it is not anticipated that they will be placed on an equal footing with the doctor. But to realize how important such devices could be, we need only think of the hard work of general medical practitioners, who have to be perfectly familiar with all the branches of their profession, and whom every patient expects to know just as much about eye disease, infarction of the heart and gynaecology, as about the common cold or the proper way to treat a broken finger. Family doctors must be surgeons, specialists in internal diseases, toxicologists, skin specialists, druggists and Heaven knows what else. But that is just not possible. In many cases, the doctor cannot make a correct diagnosis as quickly as would be desirable, because he cannot at a moment's notice co-ordinate and collate the countless details that go to make up the total picture of the patient's illness. He must consult specialists or - more frequently - spend hours studying his works of reference. In such cases, the electronic diagnoser is a real help to him.

The family doctor forwards the data regarding the disease via a teleprinter to an electronic computer at a clime or a university, where it has been trained with the collaboration of a hundred or so medical specialists. The apparatus can give its opinion on the case to the doctor in a fraction of a second. Naturally he will still be at liberty to look up the case in his library and obviously he will not invariably feel bound to accept the verdict of the computer. But you can imagine how much time the electronic assistant diagnoser will save him.

The professional men at work on diagnosis programs are aware how important it is to keep such machines under constant supervision and to continue their education by calling on the knowledge of more and more doctors. There are already a number of diagnosis machines in operation. The danger still exists that a single out-of-order transistor might lead them to recommend decapitation instead of the removal of an appendix.

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Kybernetik - Was ist das?

First printed in Germany: 1963


Cybernetic Computer and Electronic Brain

The fascinating story of how computers work in clear, non-mathematical language