Human beings turn out to have an Achilles heel that may also be our Achilles heal. We cannot resist new technologies if those technologies replicate or attempt to replicate human behaviors. Hence, robots galvanize our attention, almost as if we are all children saying, “Look! Look! A machine that walks and talks!”
When we stroke a key on a computer keyboard and a letter appears on the screen that is the precise letter we had in mind to “write,” we are mesmerized. We jump headfirst into the machinery that, seemingly magically, manifests just what we were thinking.
There is, seemingly, almost no limit to this childlike Achilles heel of fascination with technology. We aren’t stopping for a moment to wonder whether “meeting” with people many hours a day through Zoom is actually doing damage to our ability to connect with other people in “real life” or not. We didn’t pause an instant before porting over our lives into Facebook, pretending to have dozens or hundreds or thousands of “friends” (and words have had meaning, until we started to bastardize them). We don’t question whether Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain chip company, which is developing a computer chip to implant in the human brain and connect the brain to the Internet, is a wonderful idea or something that should be stopped before it fundamentally alters the nature of what it means to be human, to be alive, to be creative, to be intelligent, to solve problems for ourselves, etc.
This Achilles heel of fascination with things technological and things robotic and things related to artificial intelligence is also impacting the field of health care in unprecedented ways. Virtual office visits to the doctor or therapist are not office visits, after all. They may turn out to lack enough of the human dimension of healing to render healing less powerful—maybe not even powerful enough to combat certain illnesses. Without knowing the impact of a handshake with a doctor, or a determined look in the eyes or the power of human touch, we are dispensing in a wholesale fashion with all of it. And why? Sure, part of it is Covid-19 and the restrictions that have come with it. But part of it is because we are profoundly vulnerable to substituting Zoom for in-person meetings, thereby substituting two-dimensional, lighted displays of humans, generally from the shoulders up, for full bodied, three-dimensional versions of humans who lean forward to make a point, who look away deep in thought, who leave a room and walk back in when they forgot to say something—especially if it was something important and worth walking back in the room for.
We don’t even know what the therapeutic value of the waiting room might be or might have been—wherein patients saw that others were voting with their feet to visit the same healer and that some of them looked like they were steady on their feet.
We don’t know the first thing about rushing healing into two dimensions, turning doctors into on-screen characters or, even more vexing, creating avatars who function as “therapists.”
Maybe the epitaph on our humanity will note that our intellectual arrogance paved the way for the destruction of the human soul.
I don’t know.
No one does.
That’s the point I’m making.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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