Category Archives: Prediction

The Other 2012 Prophecy

I asked Joseph November, Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, to share this techno-prophesy with our audience. He was kind enough to oblige me. Enjoy! (If you want to read more, check out his new book):

Closing in on December 21, 2012, there are few credible signs of the prophesied apocalypse. However, there’s another set of 2012 predictions, one pertaining to the use of electronics in medicine that just might be worthy of your notice.

Lusted’s 1962 Paper, as reprinted in 2000

In “Bio-Medical Electronics-2012 A.D” [pay-wall], Lee B. Lusted, M.D. imagined he was writing a letter to his 1962 Proceedings of the IRE audience from fifty years in the future. In his short but captivating essay, Lusted, a radar engineer-turned-radiologist who at the time headed the National Institutes of Health’s first effort to computerize biology and medicine, set forth his vision of what medicine would be like in the future he was helping to build.

Besides offering fascinating benchmarks for both providers and consumers of medical care, Lusted’s speculations provide us with a window into the thinking of one of the most influential, though seldom-discussed, shapers of today’s medicine.

Writing to 1962 from his envisioned 2012, Lusted made the following observations:

  • “Nearly all of the body organs can now be replaced by compact artificial organs with built-in control systems. This includes the heart, kidneys, stomach, and even liver…. The ability to find the correct nerve circuits and to trace the circuit like a telephone repairman was developed in the early 1990’s and it is this technique, made possible by microelectrodes and very compact flexible computers, which permits the quick hook-up of artificial organs.”
  •  “Long flexible fiber optic bundles can be inserted into any body orifice and also into arteries and veins so that the physician can look around inside any organ in the body…The old unsolved problem of the 1960’s of trying to find a small bleeding vessel in the small intestine is easily solved now because the surgeon can look around inside the intestine, with one fiber scope and simultaneously inspect the blood vessels to the intestine with a fiber scope which he has inserted into the blood vessel system.”
  •  “Micro chemical analysis, high speed computers, the extensive use of information theory and recently developed new mathematical techniques now help identify the exact composition of the nucleic acids and a host of enzyme systems.”
  •  “The position of the chemical constituents such as amino acids in all of the complex chemical systems is now known. It is also possible with about a 90 per cent probability of success to replace any defective amino acid within a nucleic acid. This technical development has made it possible to develop a superior system of genetics. Genetic defects which were unavoidable in the twentieth century can now be avoided, or if they do occur they can be repaired… parents can now choose to have a boy or a girl (with about 90 per cent probability of success).”
  •  “The early bio-medical computing systems and electronic diagnosis systems developed in the United States were sent to other countries, such as India, Africa and South America where they were very helpful to the few available doctors who were trying to look after the health of large populations.”
  • “By 2000 A.D. people have become accustomed to the regular health checkup most of which they can have in their own homes. On a given day at an appointed time the person goes to some room in the house where equipment has been installed and connected to the local medical center.”

It’s hard not to read through Lusted’s imagined report from 2012 without a knowing smile or a twinge of regret, but what should not be forgotten is that Lusted was writing in earnest and from the perspective of someone who was in a position to channel federal funds towards the development of the wondrous advances he predicted. Granted, many aspects of the future Lusted imagined did not come about, but this was not for a lack of trying or resources.

In my new book, Biomedical Computing: Digitizing Life in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), I show how Lusted’s widely influential computing advocacy (often written in collaboration with Robert Ledley, the inventor of the whole-body CT scanner) and his actions as chair of the powerful NIH Advisory Committee on Computers in Research during the early 1960s laid much of the groundwork for the computerization of biology and medicine. Computer-dependent biomedical endeavors like the Human Genome Project and Evidence-Based Medicine have many roots that can be traced to Lusted’s vision and patronage. The book also makes the case that Lusted and his fellow visionaries at the NIH sponsored work that helped to bring about major changes in computing itself, including the development of personal computers.

[I thank Dan Bouk for giving me the opportunity to share this story here!] No, Joe. Thank you!

Embracing and Communicating Uncertainty

I am hesitant to blog about the hurricane ripping through the Mid-Atlantic, especially while I’m sitting comfortably safe and warm, six time zones away. I’ve read too many sad stories already and seen, electronically, too much destruction to want to drain the moment of its significance, its discomforts, and too often its tragedies. To my friends in the path, and every one else: I hope you’re experiencing a speedy recovery.

Sandy’s Cone of Uncertainty, National Weather Service

Still I think it is appropriate to notice the success of the National Weather Service and its associated forecasters. Without their efforts, and subsequent evacuations, many more people might have been been killed or injured. One key to that success, according to Nate Silver, is the NWS’s embrace of uncertainty, its frank acknowledgement of error, and its skepticism of its own models. The “cone of uncertainty,” above, exemplifies the NWS ethos and makes it public. Instead of simple trajectory, we get a range of possible paths, and the caveat that areas outside the path may still feel some impact of the storm. I’m sure you’ve all seen some version of this graphic recently.

Silver, whose political forecasting blog (fivethirtyeight) offers some of the best analysis of the ins and outs of predictive modeling that I’ve read anywhere*, published an excerpt from his new book last month on the development of weather forecasting. It’s snappily written with a standard new journalism flair. Silver shows us the shiny innards (in-nerds? ha, ha, get it?) of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (which I had never heard of) and makes lame jokes along the way (but who am I, really, to judge?).

While Silver offers a capsule history of weather prediction, his real points are: 1) the embrace of uncertainty has been key to improved prediction and 2) even the best models have flaws that require expert judgment and human intervention. On the first point, Silver contemplates the impact of chaos theory on the way forecasters deal with their data and he notes the increasing tendency of forecasters to make their uncertainty more evident. It makes me wonder if the general public has been learning a new way of thinking, a probabilistic way of thinking, or is at least getting more comfortable with ranges of prediction.

On the second point, Silver draws our attention to NWS technicians who “draw on their maps with light pens, painstakingly adjusting the contours of temperature gradients produced by the computers….” He interviews a NOAA official who explains that there are lots of models and they seldom agree. Those closest to the predictions know just how much they still don’t know. But that does not incapacitate them. Silver draws analogies to poker players, billiards sharks, and high-frequency stock traders in an effort to explain how human judgment can make it possible for people plagued by uncertainty to find an advantage. The moral here is that uncertainty need not lead to inaction, and in fact can lead to smarter action.

I’ll close this post with the “Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath,” written by Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott for the sake of financial modelers, but more broadly applicable:

The Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath 

~ I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.
~ Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.
~ I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.
~ Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights.
~ I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension.

Good science, it turns out, and good modeling, require a strong dose of humility.

*Seriously, I could make the argument that Silver is just using the election to teach a huge number of people how to think responsibly about statistics and predictive modeling. Ben Schmidt does a similar service for the digital humanities using nostalgic TV shows like Downton Abbey.