The Importance of Being Human

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Independent Pharmacists in the Age of AI

AI Wooden Robot

As community pharmacists, we know that large-chain drugstores can pose a threat. But another competitor on the horizon should give pause to all pharmacists – all working people, for that matter. Artificial intelligence (AI) is raising alarm about its potential to take the bulk of human work away from humans. Separating the hype from what will actually happen is far from easy.

Even technology gurus vary wildly in their predictions. With so many unknowns, it can be very tempting to take an “I’ll think about it tomorrow” stance. But AI is real, it’s growing, and it’s only getting smarter. The NCPA wrote an executive update on AI more than 3 years ago, which illustrates that it’s not too soon to consider the possible effects.

Typing “AI pharmacy” into Google one day generated a list of articles with titles like “Could a Robot Do a Pharmacist’s Job?” and “The Pharmacy of the Future is Here and It’s Run by Robots.” It’s enough to make any pharmacist a little nervous. So what’s the threat to our livelihood, and how can we protect it? It’s all about embracing our humanity.

Why Is AI Important?
The potential is so significant even when only considering medical applications. Think about the massive amount of health data within a single patient’s electronic medical record (EMR) – the equivalent of 100MB of structured and unstructured data, according to an IBM Watson product web page. While the data presents tremendous value for patient care decisions, someone has to sift through and organize it in way that actually leads to new insights.

In tasks like these, a human cannot compete with the computational power of artificial (or augmented) intelligence software. IBM is just one of many companies developing AI that can collate key details in an EMR into a workable list of clinical concerns.

Another company, Atomwise, uses supercomputers to search for potential therapies in a database of molecular structures. It launched a virtual search for existing medicines that could be redesigned to treat Ebola and says it found drugs in less than a day that could significantly reduce Ebola infectivity.

So Why Are People Nervous?
The rapid, unprecedented solutions promised by AI can begin to seem more ominous when projected to a logical conclusion. A large survey of machine learning researchers predicted that AI will soon outperform humans in many activities, from translating languages and driving a truck (within 8-10 years) to writing a bestseller and performing surgery (within 31-35 years). The researchers saw a 50-50 chance that AI will outperform humans in all tasks in 45 years.

Then there are the more sci-fi horror film aspects of AI, like its very inhuman choices when faced with simple tasks like winning a racing game. Instead of going faster, the AI taught itself to exploit a flaw in the game. It drove in circles and racked up bonus points while also crashing into walls and setting itself on fire. Whether or not AI plays by human rules becomes much more important when we imagine it driving not a video boat but a rush-hour commuter ferry.

What’s a Human to Do?
It’s important to recognize that our lives will be impacted by AI, but exactly how remains unclear. Simply staying aware of developments in artificial intelligence, particularly in healthcare, is a place to start. A Google search on “AI news” will pull articles from sources like ScienceDaily and MIT. Popular online business publications and pharmacy organizations are now routinely posting their own analyses.

With so many potential pathways for AI, there remain opportunities for the public to shape its use, an effort joined by noted figures such as Elon Musk (he co-founded OpenAI, a nonprofit research group devoted to safe, beneficial AI) and Bill Gates (he’s called for a tax on robots that replace a human’s job).

It’s also important to recognize which characteristics are most likely to protect a job — judgment, creativity and social intelligence form bottlenecks to automation. “Soft” skills are where AI is far less likely to match us, or at least will take long enough getting there that we have a fighting chance. One observer describes it as doubling down on our humanity.

As we turn over repetitive tasks to our artificially intelligent coworkers, technical skills will be eclipsed by higher-order cognitive and emotional abilities. A smart machine may be great at diagnosing complex problems and recommending actions, but a human being is still better at navigating politics, motivating good performance, and building team morale.

Skills like persuasion, social perception, and empathy, which haven’t been emphasized as much during professional education, are going to become essential differentiators for those who wants to stay relevant in their field.

What’s a Pharmacist to Do?
Studies tell us that our technical skills aren’t what promote customer loyalty – it’s the social interaction with patients. Trust in pharmacists is the first driver of customer satisfaction and a direct driver of store loyalty.

Focusing on the patient relationship is nothing new for community pharmacy. It’s long made us different from large chains, and its value is being rediscovered. Just think about the trends toward enhanced clinical care and outcomes-based reimbursement.

So as artificial intelligence joins the healthcare team – and it will – we can feel reassured that there really is something irreplaceable about the human touch.

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