By Dr. Jim Ferguson

I suspect every generation, after coming of age, reflects upon the “good ole days.” I’m amazed how the world has changed during my lifetime, especially in the last twenty years with cell phones and the Internet. The Net is an invaluable tool for a curious fellow like me. Now, instead of going to a library I just Google my questions, realizing I still have to use my experience and intuition to parse the answers.

My iPhone is always in my pocket, unless I’m in bed or the shower! I no longer buy newspapers because I read the news online through various apps (applications) on my iPhone. I’m no longer bound to a chair, my TV or radio or even a broadcast time slot since I can access the world any time I choose. And fortunately, there are many “news” perspectives, given the politicization of what was once simple reporting of the facts (fake news).

Caddy Shack is a farcical movie about golf. It’s a cult favorite and stars Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield. A minor character is “Doctor Beeper,” so named because he carries a pager. Like me, Beeper was able to manage his patients while away from his office. Have you considered why you no longer hear a page for doctors at UT football games? And smartphones have now replaced beepers.

I no longer buy medical text books; I carry a compendium of medical knowledge in my pocket. The information in textbooks is arguably two years old by the time of purchase. Now, I subscribe to a continuously updated medical, surgical and pediatric online “textbook” available through my iPhone. My patients benefit and so do I. No one can know everything, but you can ask. I learned long ago there is no shame in asking questions, and looking up answers is a pathway to knowledge and wisdom.

We are more connected than ever before. The telephone was revolutionary, and replaced the telegraph long before my time. And now we use email more than “snail mail” of the postal system. We moderns send text messages and pictures next door and across the country. Social media has become an integral aspect of our modern life. Even if you don’t do Facebook or Instagram, you hear of President Trump’s Tweets and those of others which the media treats as news instead of doing investigative reporting as was once a standard of journalism.

In my concierge medical practice my patients call me directly, so it was not unusual that my pocket vibrated, but unusual that it began to “speak to me.” I shifted my granddaughter to the other hip to retrieve my iPhone, and was shocked to see the face of a friend who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland! Apparently, I had accidentally “butt-called” him or as the Brits might say, I “bum-called” him. Becky and I use Apple’s FaceTime app to see and talk with our daughter and granddaughter in Oregon. However, I had never called internationally. So, was this FaceTime call to my friend serendipity or Providential?

I’m careful about what I write or cast upon the Internet. However, due to fat fingers, I have accidentally hit the send button before a note was proofread or even complete. To prevent this I now do not enter the address until my note is complete. And I don’t Tweet because I was taught that if you’re angry you should write a letter, but not send it until it had rested three days in your desk drawer. Instant communication and knee-jerk reactions have obvious drawbacks.

I read an interesting report two weeks ago concerning research from the University of Southern California. The research concerned “bots,” short for robot internet accounts. It turns out that up to 15% of the accounts on Twitter are not people, but are automated responders to certain words or phrases or people who tweet. Given the 319 million monthly users of Twitter, there may be 48 million robot accounts used to inflate responses or denigrate the opinion of others.

Today I read a story about emergency drones rather than the ones who spy on the neighbor’s sunbathing daughter or drop bombs on terrorists. These emergency drones can be summoned with a 911 call, delivering a defibrillator and then instruct bystanders how to deliver a resuscitative shock.

Every day we hear how robots are taking over the world. Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates are fearful of advancing AI, artificial intelligence which they worry will enslave humans. The movie Terminator echoed this dystopic view of how the rest of us view our mechanical servitors.

I’ve always been fascinated by thinking, and how some people don’t seem to do so. Scientists have been unable to trace the neural pathways of a thought process. We know there are areas where memories are held, areas which control motor function and areas which control vital systems like breathing or digesting supper. However, in the thought process, the brain seems to collect information from many diverse areas, collates the data in an ill-defined way and thought results. Computers can crunch information at the speed of light (186,000 miles a second) and render an answer. Human neurons signal each other collectively at 100 meters a second (a meter is thirty-nine inches) and thought ensues. And our ah-hahs surpass any number cruncher. . . so far.

Isaac Asimov was a polymath, a man of many talents. He published books in every section of the Dewey Decimal library system. I first learned of Asimov reading his science fiction novels. One salient SF series revolves around artificially intelligent robots. Asimov famously created the three robotic laws for his protagonist R. Daneel Olivaw, a human appearing robot seemingly more capable than mortal man. These laws are:

1 – A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human to come to harm;

2 – A robot must obey orders given it by humans except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;

3 – A robot must protect its own existence as long as protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Hawking and Gates need not fear AIs, but should lobby to make sure our machines are programmed with humanity’s best interests. Actually, a much larger concern is the Beltway boys and girls of Washington DC who obviously don’t have proper programming and the best interests of Americans.