back to article Sun daddy: 'Machines will replace 80 per cent of doctors'

According to Sun Microsystems cofounder and serial entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, 80 per cent of doctors could be replaced by machines – computing devices backed by imense data sets. Speaking at the recent Health Innovation Summit in San Francisco, Khosla referred to today's physicians as "voodoo doctors," noting that "Health care …


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  1. mhoulden

    Because Therac 25 worked so well...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Just like NHS Direct

      They will tell you to go and see your Doctor.

      1. robin48gx

        Re: Just like NHS Direct

        Yeah, but it will tell you to go see your doctor when it knows whats actually wrong with you.... all he has to do write the prescription (in the UK).... in civilised countries like spain u can prob just walk to the pharmacist and cut out the middle man

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Thank you

      For using the Diagnositron 5000, the most up to date medical self diagnostic machine developed by the NH-5s Corporation.

      The machine will offer you a diagnosis and treatment speech and print out within 6 seconds and is 99% reliable.

      Machine, 'you are stuffed mate, you've got 3 months to live, but you'll probably not be as lucky as that!'

      Engineer, 'this is always happening since they outsourced the IT to India, but at least this one speaks English.'

      2nd Engineer, ' yeah but where did it get the Newcastle accent from?'

    3. robin48gx

      therac 25

      they took away the hardware interlocks on that to save money, because the regulators knew very little about safety they passed it.....

      Software and safety technology have moved on considerably...

      Without a computer to control the aircraft with CofG pushed right back, no pilot could control an aircraft now...

      And its a red herring anyway because its

      absolutely nothing to do with diagnosis.....

  2. drengur

    He is right that more can done by machines, but...

    replacing 80% of doctors seems like a bit of a call! As an IT pro myself and my wife being a doctor, I can't see the two living well together when things are voiced as this.

    Computers certainly have the capability to be able to diagnose according to a set of symptoms, but my suspicion is they will only be able to do half the job. They will probably just list symptoms and suggest matching diseases to a qualified doctor - like all other medical diagnosis machines. The primary difference will it will replace the ritual of stethoscope, wooden paddle and blood pressure, delivering consistent result sets to GPs. Oh, and they are almost certainly going to be unbelievably expensive! I think where it will impact jobs is Triage nurses, who will become glorified machine operators.

    What doctors do is certainly not voodoo, and using language like that is going to hinder development of these sort of machines.

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Re: He is right that more can done by machines, but...

      Actually, there seems to be a two-pronged approach being tried: (1) a 'virtual doctor' application that uses a database of disease literature and case notes to generate a diagnosis and course of treatment from the patient's symptoms and (2) using a database of drugs, trial results, etc to aid a doctor's search for appropriate drugs during a consultation, the idea being that this reduces the doctor's workload of keeping up with current research and new drugs.

      See for more details. Both look like reasonable approaches though, as they are based round IBM's Watson system, the kit is currently rather expensive unless it can be used as a shared resource for a group of practices.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: He is right that more can done by machines, but...

      @drengur: "Computers certainly have the capability to be able to diagnose according to a set of symptoms..."

      It would be interesting to ask your wife's opinion on this, but a friend of mine who is a GP told me that symptoms alone are not always the best route to discovering the root problem. The cause can easily be disconnected from the symptoms, so patient might be exhibiting problems for a specific illness where the root cause might be stress, depression, etc. That's why it's so important for a GP to spend some time just talking with a patient rather than immediately listing (and treating) symptoms. It takes a person to really understand another person. Doctors that aren't personable won't be good GP's.

      I don't know how a computer is supposed to perform physical examinations either. In the early stages of cancer, I had a lump but none of the expected symptoms. This caused delays even with a doctor, but it could have been far worse with a machine diagnosing symptoms only.

      1. Ru

        Re: He is right that more can done by machines, but...

        "Doctors that aren't personable won't be good GP's"

        The sort of thing I was envisaging here would be more like a medical professional who was an actual human being capable of interacting with other human beings but not as highly trained or qualified as a GP. They'd use the diagnostic system to assist them in their work, which might ultimately boil down to a sophisticated triage and limited prescription issuing service. The 'real' doctor level might well still exist, but needn't be as large as it is now, nor need it necessarily deal with things that aren't particularly serious.

        People seem to imagine some sort of impersonal and automated diagnost-i-tron device in an empty booth, but not only would that not do a good job for exactly the reasons you cited, but it would also be a) vastly more expensive and complex than a human-guided system and also b) not necessarily as good.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: He is right that more can done by machines, but...

      Wait, what are they using the wooden paddle for? ;)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    in 5 years the ONLY job will be McDonald's burger flipper unit

    in 10 years that will be done by a very rude machine

    in 15 years 90% of the population has been culled and a GM virus breaks down their flesh into McDonald's burger meat. The only job for the remaining 10% is to be in the government burger department and imbreed violently.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: in 5 years the ONLY job will be McDonald's burger flipper unit

      Frankly, I don't understand why McDonalds are still using humans to flip burgers today. It must either be an unwritten obligation to provide jobs due to them being such a mega global corporation, or a worry that getting rid of humans and serving machine-prepared food would create the wrong image and lose custom.

      But surely they'd save a fortune having a factory that prepares dozens of frozen burgers in a tube, which then get ejected one at a time onto a conveyor belt that passes through a grill to cook both sides in one go.

      All you'd need then would be a skeleton staff to operate the tills and hand the bag to them (just to give the customer *some* level of human interaction), and the shareholders would be as happy as pigs in a McFlurry.

      Mind you, once the machines are running everything and the humans only consume, with no job to earn disposable income to make it worth the machine's time, that's when they'll start culling us.

      My name's John Connor and you've been a lovely audience, goodnight!

    2. pixl97


      Brian Marshall summed up his dystopian version of machine replacement in the short Manna.

  4. skeptical i

    Fine and dandy until Big Pharma buys in and suddenly everything needs the latest drugs.

    We already have enough problems with doctors (not all, but enough) being too lazy/ busy/ overworked/ underpaid to do more than shove pills at people. OTOH, if the robodocs can reasonably accurately deal with the easy diagnoses that waste high-level medical talent and leave real doctors to deal with cases that more greatly benefit from experience, intuition, and the laying on of medical hands it might be a better deal all'round -- patients who genuinely need more "face time" get it, doctors are less frustrated by "idiot patients", and perhaps more low-income patients can be seen for routine things (colds, earaches, sprains) if the robodocs bring down the cost of a visit to within the realm of real affordability.

    1. Thorne

      Re: Fine and dandy until Big Pharma buys in and suddenly everything needs the latest drugs.

      Yes but the big pharma has already bought a lot of flesh and blood doctors. Diagnose a kid as ADHA and proscribe Ritalin and get a free holiday.

      Robot doctors will however be good at getting rid of time wasters. Give them their placebos and shove them back out the door.

  5. Turtle

    Small mistake corrected.

    "'Khosla referred to today's physicians as 'voodoo doctors,' noting that 'Health care is like witchcraft and just based on tradition,' according to conference attendee Davis Liu, who discussed Khosla's profoundly ignorant attempt to attract media attention and thus make it easier for him to raise investment and venture capital, in a blog post."

    Just a small, really very very minor correction, which I am sure that most people would not even notice.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Robodoc: "We need a urine sample, you have twenty seconds to comply."

    "I am now authorized to use force."

  7. Graham Marsden


    ... at least an electronic doctor should be able to provide legible prescriptions!

  8. Rodrigo Valenzuela

    He obviously doesn't have a medical degree nor medical training or biological knowledge.

    Of course, a lot of illnesses can be deduced from watching a set of data and the "mental process" of a doctor is very akin to that of an "expert system".

    But medicine is much more than prescribing drugs or handing treatments.

    There is a no minor part of doctor - patient relationship.

    There are a lot of problems that are more psychological than physical, yet still produce detectable symptoms that if observed just by themselves would yield a completely different diagnostic.

    Speaking of MDs as "voodoo doctors" shows not only ignorance, but a lot of petulance.


    1. Old Handle

      There is a no minor part of doctor - patient relationship.

      It's just too bad most flesh-and-blood doctors are also rubbish at that part.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Doctor-Patient Relationships.

        I don't where you are (although your post suggests UK) but I am in the US, and I can not recall a single time in real life that I have heard a person complain about their doctor - and it's not as though everyone I know is wealthy and goes to expensive doctors, either.

        In fact, nearly everyone I know gets their healthcare via Medicaid or Medicare, the two government programs for the elderly, disabled, or indigent. Conicidentally, I went with a friend to the doctor earlier today, as moral support. (And I have NEVER seen so many pregnant women in my life!) She is not working (but not eligible for any government programs or benefits for a variety of reasons), and we went to a nearby clinic which I assume was founded/endowed/supported by Charles B. Wang - because his name is on it. Because she is not working at the present time, she did not have to pay for the visit - although she did get a flu shot which cost her $10. Tomorrow she will have to visit the radiologist and she will have to pay for that, but not terribly much, really.

        (I am not suggesting that my experience and the experience of those I know are typical of the entire country. but that are more than typical of where I live.)

        Now, I *have* heard people complain about nurses (and aides and orderlies) in hospitals proper; it seems that it is not a rarity to have one of those on hand, but I think that that's the nature of the job: a doctor is a doctor, but a nurse is kind of like a nagging parent, and who likes those?

        (I realize that he has been the subject of a great amount of controversy for his business practices, but big, big thanks to Charles B. Wang for the health care for my friend, and the other people at the clinic. )

  9. tkioz

    90% of doctor's consultations could be replaced today... with Nurses. Frankly the medical profession is far too top heavy, you don't need to see a doctor because you've got the flu, or you've cut yourself, a nurse will just as well, if not better.

    It's a unfortunate situation in our society, just like our modern armies, we've got more generals then soldiers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I defend the top-heavy medics vigorously

    2. Turtle

      "could be replaced" - "are being replaced"

      "90% of doctor's consultations could be replaced today... with Nurses. "

      I can not put a number on it, but more and more of the work that a physician does is now being done by Physician Assistants, and Nurse Practitioners. This is becoming very very common.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oh my

    I just can't wait for the 2.0 social version! With smartphone app! Sharing is caring!

    Uhm, wait.

  11. Robert E A Harvey

    Hello, this is 1980

    We had this idea back then. "Expert systems" would be created to encapsulate the best practice of the finest [Doctors|Surgeons|Engineers|Financiers] to assist the less able. Died a death then, I suggest it will again.

  12. Allan George Dyer Silver badge


    If you start with a list of signs and symptoms, then dropping them into an expert system and getting a reasonable diagnosis is almost easy compared to starting with a patient, and compiling that list (including the ones the patient is embarrassed about).

  13. attoman

    Vinod prognosticator who brought us Sun now predicts new stuff

    Vinod and Sun did nothing new at the start. They marketed a motorola 68000 micro in grossly over designed rack mount using Berkeley UNIX. Programmers bought it and for some time Sun didn't quite deliver it.

    I presented new technology to Sun's exec committee including Vinod. They didn't care about pointing devices, touch screens or gesture control (1985) Vinod and company were as staid and conservative as bankers.

    It's in fact bankers that is what they were with 100 million in Stanford connected monies.

    Now Vinod's on his own so what has he picked as the prognosticator and put his money on and won? Why nothing at all.

    He may have bought into some deals that does not count. We are not talking about sympathy investments but about a new idea recognized by Vinod alone and backed as the first backer.

    NOTHING, Vinod has found NOTHING. NOTHING AGAIN, and it isn't even new.

    So Vinod you want to lecture us, you want to impress us with your forward thinking ability? It's easy fellow JUST DO IT.

    Here are the RULES.

    It has to be NEW. You have to FUND it first.

    1. robin48gx

      Re: Vinod prognosticator who brought us Sun now predicts new stuff

      those SUN 68k unix systems worked well and reliably... unlike most of the other stuff around at the time...

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Am I detecting some sour grapes here?

    It seems specious to imply that Sun didn't achieve anything based on the fact that their first product may have been late and may have been conservative in its design.

    Perhaps their lack of interest in your presentation reflects on the presentation rather than them?

    Even if everything you say is true and VInod never had a good idea in his life, it does not imply that he never will or that his new idea is flawed. It would be better to assess it on its own merits, surely?

    Just sayin'

    FWIW, I for one would welcome my GP being replaced by a machine.

  15. Piro Silver badge

    All I can think of is Idiocracy..

    ... and the idiot required to use the machine mixing up which probe goes where.

    I'd like the people in charge of health to be trained professionals, not a desktop support bod.

    1. Thorne

      Re: All I can think of is Idiocracy..

      "I'd like the people in charge of health to be trained professionals, not a desktop support bod"

      What people in charge? There will be a button on the machine that will put a call through to a tech support line in India.

  16. g e


    I wish. It's more like bloody guesswork in the UK unless you're lucky enough to have a local practice with a properly good old-school style Doctor.

    All you get is hmmm.. let's try you on this and come back in a fortnight and we'll see how you're doing.

    You'd be better off with a 1d20 and a potion of healing from eBay

    1. Piro Silver badge

      Re: WItchcraft?

      Good God yes, nobody seems to have the balls to actually get anything done - it just seems all about treating symptoms to some degree and delaying difficult decisions..

  17. VinceH


    Based on my last visit to the doctor, I'm inclined to think they were already being replaced by machines - androids, specifically.

    It was several years ago, and towards the end of the visit, the doctor appeared to go into standby mode; he sat perfectly still, looking straight ahead of him, unblinking.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Optional

      You probably caused brain-lock by distracting him from pondering how to de-barnacle his yacht or improve his swing, or he's wanting to have a swift look at WikiPedia without you noticing, and keeping a beady eye on you for the right moment to swoop for the keyboard :P

  18. Great Bu

    Fine except where it's applied to actual patients.......

    Such algorythm based systems for diagnosis work fine if you present them with a nice set of symptoms and test results. Unfortunately my experience as a nurse suggests that actual patients are rarely as forthcoming as you would like with neat lists like that - most will omit relevant symptoms during initial assesment (usually because they don't perceive them as relevant, for example - why would they mention having back ache yesterday when it's today's vomiting they are presenting with ? To me it's a sign of gall stones, to them it's an irrelevant symptom that would not even cross their mind).

    In an IT translated version it's the equivalent of the difference between your end user support ticket reading "I have boot sector corruption from a rawling virus* infection, please re-install my OS and leave out Java this time" and the real ticket that says "When I press the button on the typewriter bit, the telly bit doesn't do anything"

    *Spot the reference, win a prize ! **

    ** Actual prize does not exist.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Age of Steel

    I think we all know exactly how these machines will end up 'treating' their 'patients'. Titter ye not!

    The latest of Vinod Khosla's "serial entrepreneur" ventures isn't a company called Cybus Industries, by any chance?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Age of Steel

      Maybe like in the film "Demon Seed"? :P (most likely slightly NSFW but pretty old)

  20. mhenriday

    While I agree that there does remain a soupçon of witchcraft

    and a good portion of unverified tradition in medicine, anyone who believes that its practice can be reduced to the simple checking off of well-defined symptoms from a list knows little about biology or medicine....

    Henri (PhD, MD)

    1. robin48gx

      Re: While I agree that there does remain a soupçon of witchcraft

      What about automated urine and blood tests---use science not heuristics...

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Which 80%, do they leave the head on?

  22. robin48gx

    at least you would be able to get an appiontment

  23. samlebon23

    What about nurses?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They're great, I highly recommend you try one ;)

  24. Timo

    the future is ETHANOL... oh wait that was so 2 years ago

    This is the same guy that was selling Ethanol as the next great thing. ZOMG!!!!!!

    Looks like he's more of a "flipper" than anything - buy into technology X, then take it on parade and hope you can convince someone to buy you out before the real people with common sense call BS on it.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    dose of reality at last

    there are probably apps that can do away with 50% of the useless processes and people in any hospital now.

  26. James 100

    Replace part of the workload

    The key would be to replace some of their workload: the routine box-ticking. Last week, I needed a prescription (anti-inflammatories for my shoulder, as it happens). With that particular drug, like many, there's a set of instructions and a checklist of contra-indications: any history of stomach ulcers, etc. With a bit of coding, the computer in the waiting room that handles checkins could have checked those too, freeing the GP up to deal with the next patient sooner.

    There was a bit of manual prodding and twisting to make sure the shoulder hurt, or words to that effect. That's the bit the doctor's needed for, or at least someone with relevant training - but that's less than half the time the current process took.

  27. attoman

    Sun was not known for reliability in their first two years

    The person who believes otherwise should check the facts.

    As to Vinod's support for transformative invention or even innovation I am more then willing to be convinced he is a star in the area.

    Please name the companies he was first backer to that meet this criteria.

    Understand that to join the crowd of banker VCs once opportunity is fully vetted is more like an early stock play and means nothing in establishing new beginnings. Such investments do not count only those where Vinod was the earliest and first and held in for a reasonable period of time say a year or two.

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