Human–Cyborg Relations: Coming Soon to a Medical School Near You

By Kirsten Ostherr, PhD, MPH

Much ink has been spilled in recent months over the ostensible threat posed by artificial intelligence. Inspired by Nick Bostrom’s best-selling book, Superintelligence, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton imagines a doomsday scenario in which “a medical robot, originally programmed to rid cancer, could conclude that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease.” This nightmare vision taps into long-standing debates about the role of technology in medicine. Critics pit the healing power of human touch and the intuitive capabilities of human sense perception against the cold rationality and rigid binarism of computer logic. But computers are here to stay, and it’s not a zero-sum game.  

Today, computer-based personal genome sequencing is leading us into the era of “precision medicine.” Just like our personal computers, the machines that do everything from interventional radiology to appointment scheduling have gotten smaller, faster, cheaper, and more powerful. At one end of the spectrum, the EHR screen sits obtrusively between doctor and patient in the exam room. At the other end of the spectrum, our digital footprints are leading us to unwittingly buy certain products and engage in particular behaviors, based on our previous online transactions. These developments affect both doctors and patients, and we need to think critically and creatively about their implications for the future of healthcare.

In this era of ubiquitous computing, doctors and patients are engaging in new forms of communication, research, and networking. But our medical schools have not kept pace with these changes. Our pre-med students communicate almost exclusively on Facebook, but doctors don’t learn how to adapt their personal use of social media for professional contexts. Patients are learning from each other in online peer-to-peer networks, but doctors aren’t learning how to tap the wisdom of the crowd in medical school. We need new pedagogical models that will help foster the digital literacies that 21st century doctors need, and that 21st century patients demand.

That’s why my colleague Dr. Bryan Vartabedian (@Doctor_V) of Baylor College of Medicine and I created a new course called Medicine in the Digital Age. Based on a class we team-taught at Rice University in 2013, we have scaled up our course in the form of a MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Course) to be offered on the edX platform. The course is free, it launches May 5, and it promises a global conversation about how developments like artificial intelligence, EHRs, social media, and personalized medicine are impacting doctors and patients.

We will explore the role of social media in healthcare communication, the uses of wearable technologies, the potential for big data to reshape health behaviors, the ethics of personalized medicine, and the impact of these new developments on the doctor–patient relationship. We already have thousands of students signed up from over 130 countries. We hope you’ll be part of the conversation.

Ostherr_Headshot_2013Kirsten Ostherr, PhD, MPH, is a media scholar who specializes in health and medical visualizations. She is Professor of English at Rice University and, with the support of a New Directions fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she recently completed a Master of Public Health degree at the University of Texas School of Public Health. She can be reached at

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