Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Doctors, Artificial Intelligence, and Creating Competitive Advantage: Reflect on Your Ways of Thinking (Differently)

When I ran the teaching and learning center at New York University, the NYU Medical Center was engaged in an ambitious development program to improve faculty teaching and student learning. At its core was the recognition that doctors today employ algorithmic thinking.

Put simply, doctors make diagnoses that are more and more precise when they have more and more input, like symptoms or test data, to assess. So if you tell your doctor you have headaches and chest pain, she may list one hundred possible ailments. But if you add another symptom, like tingling in your hands and feet, her list is reduced to 50 possibilities; another symptom, like a strong reaction to salty food, takes her list down further to 15 or 20. With blood or other tests, she ultimately is able to narrow your possible ailments to 2 or 3. The doctor thus analyzes your symptoms and other input in combination, processing them algorithmically to produce the most likely explanation for their occurring at the same time.

This way of thinking in medicine is explored in a fascinating piece by Vinod Khosla that appeared in TechCrunch:


On its face, the piece approaches medical thinking as a challenge for Artificial Intelligence designers. It asks whether the future will see diagnoses generated through the algorithmic processing of increasingly precise inputs and rendered without the help of doctors as we know them today. What will be the response of medical profession and medical education, Khosla asks, to the potential emergence of Artificial Intelligence that enables more and more precise algorithms for diagnosing ailments? What will they do -- and, by extension, how might their way of thinking change?

While that's certainly a worthwhile question in itself, my reading of Khosla's piece is more general: if doctors indeed practice algorithmic thinking, what other ways of thinking are practiced in other professions? Is there an entrepreneurial way of thinking, for example, that empowers creativity through associating typically dissimilar elements? Or a leaders' way of thinking that reconciles the analysis of complexity in organizations or environments with the emotional sensitivity required to inspire and motivate others? And so on.

The point, of course, is not to put people or professions in simple categories or assume that everyone in a particular category thinks the same way. Rather, the potential advantage of identifying distinct ways of thinking for those in business or other competitive situations is to be able to think differently. Michael Porter, Harvardian guru of competitive strategy, says the "granddaddy of all mistakes" is going down the same path as everyone else and thinking somehow you can achieve better results. One way to forge and follow a different path is to reflect on your current way of thinking and then to try another way of thinking and see what value that can create.

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