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  • Writer's pictureEscalate Life Sciences

Understanding Precision Medicine And AI Within The Life Cycle Of Technology Revolutions

Powerful new technologies have the potential to radically transform both science and society. In science, as Douglas Robertson describes in Phase Change (2003), a new technology like the microscope, the telescope, and the calculus can profoundly alter the questions we ask, and advance our ability to better understand nature. Society, visibly, can also be transformed by technology, as we’ve seen with examples ranging from the steam engine and the telegraph to automation and the internet.

The catch is, this transformation doesn’t occur overnight – far from it.  The remarkable and often maddening aspect of innovation (as I’ve discussed here, here) is the exceptionally long time it takes between the time a technology is originally invented and the time when people figure out how to use it most effectively.

In this three-part piece, I will first present a framework, developed by economist Carlota Perez, describing the life cycle of transformative technologies, and outline relevant refinements, introduced by columnist Daniel Gross. I’ll then locate our contemporary debate around the utility (or not) of precision medicine – and particularly, precision oncology – in the context of this framework; this section is richly informed by the perspective shared by key physician and physician-scientist thought leaders in this space. Finally, I’ll suggest that AI (as a proxy for the emerging excitement – and skepticism — around digital and data in health) seems to be entering the earliest stages of the technology diffusion trajectory, which may help explain both the frenzy and the confusion.

Part I: The Life Cycle Of Technology Revolutions

Coaxing technology through implementation is both thrilling and fraught – thrilling because of the enormous potential it represents, as envisioned by originators, advocates, and investors including venture capitalists, and the excessive hype it induces, which can range from overly-optimistic claims to outright fraud, and most everything in between.

Seen in this context, the debates around successive emerging healthcare technologies – precision medicine, AI – are in a way entirely predictable, and just the most recent iterations of the discussions that have surrounded the introduction of every new and potentially important technology. Moreover, like the famous rabbi joke, everyone may have a valid point. The advocates may correctly foresee the ultimate impact of the technology, while the critics may correctly identify where early, often aspirational claims of success may be greatly exaggerated.  Despite the cognitive dissonance that may result from sustaining both views, the tension may nevertheless ultimately help unlock the true potential of the technology. 

Written by: David Shaywitz

Published on: Oct 16, 2019, 02:18pm

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