|Back to Index||Written August, 1998|
In a warehouse, in the depths of a city, buried under tonnes of rubbish, lies the future of medicine. Rusting.
"I'm sorry, Mr Starr, but you just don't understand. Surgeon is incapable of error."
Doctor Mines sighed as for the hundredth time he tried to make his guest aware of this simple fact.
He was, once again, not successful. "All the sorrow in the world will not help, Doctor. Surgeon is."
"Very philosophical." Muttered the Doctor under his breath. He glanced at his watch and realised that his stomach had been well aware of the time for quite a while, even if his mind had chosen to ignore it. "Perhaps we should continue this over lunch in the canteen." He suggested, receiving a nod in return. He flipped several switches on the control panel besides his seat and the door to the office slid gently away from its magnetic locks and buried itself in the wall, leaving the passageway clear.
Mines stood gingerly, massaging his back with one hand, before motioning for Starr to follow him out of the room.
At fifty six years old Doctor Jeremy Mines was approaching the end of his career, and was aware of it. Even, as he did, standing over six feet tall with clear, sharp features, the toll of his years of practice were beginning to have a noticeable effect on his appearance. Where once he had exercised regularly and had always found time to eat healthily in his middle age he seemed to have let that go somewhat and his friends could confirm that his waistline was on the increase. The absent minded impression he liked to portray fooled no-one although it endeared him to his patients and to his colleagues. It also concealed a keen and very intelligent mind which many people had underestimated in the past, as (he thought) Starr was doing now. It had been clear to his parents from a very early age that their son was destined for a career in some sort of medicine (quite how is somewhat an enigma) and he had spent all his life aspiring to the position he now held. If he had grown more inattentive regarding his appearance than he once had been it might be because he simply realised that handsome looks were not going to do him any good now and as a bachelor at present, thus he would remain. This attitude did not go so far as to make him careless however so he managed to steer himself away from the roast meats on display at the counters and towards the salads, noting with some disgust that Starr's young figure obviously did not need any such control since he had chosen the selection which afforded the most possible calories.
John Starr was a completely different kind of person. Although both Mines and Starr shared a keen intellect in common it was where the similarity ended. Starr was a shade shorter than Mines but also a good deal thinner and also unlike Mines he had a very chequered background. His position as a roving investigator for the health board was almost certainly as temporary as every other post he had ever held and although many felt job security was the most important factor in any profession, Starr seemed to scorn the idea. In contrast to Mines' almost resigned bachelor-hood Starr's friends would widely attest that he changed companions almost as often as he changed suits, thankfully almost always leaving no visible disruption in his wake. His choice of his calorie filled meal was because Starr had that gene most envied amongst middle aged doctors - it didn't matter what he ate. This suited Starr fine.
"Mr Starr…" Mines began, after taking a bite of lettuce.
"John." Replied Starr, smiling.
Mines nodded and continued. "Perhaps before we continue you should tell me exactly what the problem is."
"Fairs fair," mumbled Mines, "call me Jeremy."
Starr smiled briefly at the remark, but his eyes remained as cold and analytical as ever. "Well, Jeremy. We have been noticing some significant irregularities regarding Surgeon's work."
Mines took another bite of lettuce and munched it slowly before replying. "What kind of irregularities."
"Well, statistically, some of Surgeon's patients - with quite specific conditions, in fact - seem to be dying more often. What is more, the rate is increasing."
"Do you have some details regarding that." Asked Mines.
Starr nodded and produced an electronic pad from some pocket up to this point hidden. He proceeded to tap the screen several times before he reached the information he wanted and handed it over to the Doctor opposite him, somehow he managed to combine this operation with that of dabbing his mouth with his napkin to liberate some small morsel which had taken up residence there. The feat of dexterity confirmed Mines' impression of Starr as a person who could not resist showing off.
After studying the figures for a few seconds Mines' looked up. "These don't prove anything, they are purely coincidental."
"Of course they don't prove anything," replied Starr indignantly, "I didn't say that they did. They do, however, show an alarming trend…and that Surgeon is still experimental after four years suggests that you may well be aware of it."
Mines almost laughed, but decided that it would be against the spirit of the moment. "I assure you, I was not aware of these figures until you showed them to me just now. Surgeon is still experimental because it is a highly complicated and, needless to say, ambitious project which when it is finally completed will not only save thousands of lives but will bring great prestige to this hospital."
"And yet, Jeremy, after attesting that Surgeon is so complicated that it will take years to perfect, you still maintain that it is incapable of error."
Mines nodded slowly. "I maintain that in an operation with me, or Surgeon, you will have a better chance of coming out alive with Surgeon. The project involves the use of the latest technology and although it is not truly infalible - nothing is, you know - the odds are stacked against failure."
Mines could see that Starr remained unconvinced so he continued. "John?" He asked. "How much exactly do you actually know about Surgeon?"
"That's it." Starr was incredulous.
"What exactly were you expecting?" Asked Mines jovially.
"I don't know." Starr somehow gave the impression of both awe and doubt at the same time. "Something a bit more…high tech."
Mines could understand the reaction. Surgeon stood, plugged into a power booth and where Starr had no doubt expected gleaming control panels and flashing lights there was only a dusty old work bench. Surgeon was the centrepiece and even it lacked what Starr had most expected from it. Surgeon's skin was a light pink, textured similar to a humans but with a slight metallic sheen for, of course, Surgeon was a machine.
"You see these hands?" Mines asked, lifting one in demonstration. "They have an operational resolution three times greater than a human hand. Surgeon's electronic brain operates on neural nets - it can learn as a doctor does - but it is hundreds of times faster and is programmed with methods to recover from all kinds of unlikely emergencies in addition to the regular ones. With Surgeon wielding the scalpel you have a better chance of surviving a complicated operation than with any other surgeon on the planet."
"Yes, but then why does Surgeon have a higher death rate per operation than human doctors in some areas."
"If you look at these areas I think you will find out why." Mines mused. "These operations were conducted on people who were going to die anyway and other surgeons would not even have attempted them. That Surgeon did operate probably prolonged their lives but even Surgeon can not perform miracles, at least," he smiled, "not all of the time."
Starr shook his head. "Could you tell me more about how Surgeon operates."
"I'm afraid not, I'm responsible for the medical programming side. You'd have to ask Doctor Briggs, my assistant, to explain the mechanical workings of Surgeon."
Starr smiled. "You misunderstand me, Jeremy." He paused. "I am interested in how Surgeon operates."
"Oh, well, I suppose that would be my department wouldn't it." Replied Mines.
"That's what I thought."
"Let's see. Well, to begin with, there is no anaesthetic as you would understand it. Surgeon's brain is equipped to monitor and block brain activity. Pain signals are simply blocked. Then Surgeon operates much like a human surgeon, using the same tools, except that Surgeon operates much quicker and much more accurately. Throughout the operation Surgeon monitors brain activity for any sign of trouble. At the end of the operation the patient wakes up immediately."
Starr looked impressed. "So Surgeon monitors brain activity like one of those devices you doctors use with the electrodes."
"In a way, yes. But Surgeon can also interpret some of the patterns."
"Are you saying that it can read minds?" Starr was surprised to say the least.
"That is an oversimplification. It would be more accurate to say that Surgeon can read mind sets. Emotions, if you will."
"And it was created with this ability." Mines gained the impression that Starr did not fully believe him.
"No, I was created with the ability to read the electrical impulses but there was a sub-routine in its brain core that allowed it to gradually learn how to interpret the emotions it was receiving."
"Do you make this ability clear to your patients?" Asked Starr maliciously.
"Oh yes, some are put off by it but most come round to its advantages when they remember that Surgeon is bound by the same rules of confidentiality as any surgeon and also, of course, the Hippocratic oath."
"Naturally." Murmured Starr, deep in thought. Changing the course of the conversation completely he asked. "How's Surgeon's bed-side manner?"
Mines laughed. "At first, it was terrible. However we changed the Hippocratic oath as programmed into the computer matrix slightly so it feels a compulsion not to harm people mentally either. Combined with its increasing abilities to read how people are feeling it is much better now."
Starr stood in thought for a while and then pulled up a chair. He slowly sat down and then looked up at the Doctor who had been working on this project for several years of his life.
"Jeremy. Is it possible that Surgeon is simply giving people what they want?"
Mines stared at him for a minute before replying. "Of course. Surgeon is programmed to give people their lives, to free them from their diseases."
Starr shook his head. "There was something else. In the statistics I noticed that Surgeon had refused to operate on several patients."
"Yes, there were several patients that were brought to Surgeon who it decided could not be operated on." Mines shrugged. "Even Surgeon can't cure everything."
"Did you refer the patients to a human surgeon - just in case?"
"No. It didn't seem worth putting them through that when the answer would be the same."
"Really. Well, before I came here - I did. In three of the four cases the answer wasn't the same. The human surgeon I showed said that the situation was serious, but that they would have attempted an operation. It didn't really fit until now."
"Why does it fit now?" Asked Mines, perplexed.
"Let me ask you a question." Replied Starr. "What do you think Surgeon would do with a patient who wanted to die?" Before Mines to stutter an answer Starr continued. "Surgeon can read patients emotions, it would know when someone wanted to die. Would it feel required to allow the patient to die, even if it was not necessary."
"Rubbish!" Replied Mines. "And what about the patients who died after the operations. Did they want to die too? If so, why did Surgeon operate. What led you to this ridiculous argument anyway?"
Starr kept a straight face but when he spoke his voice was dry and devoid of all emotion. "What led me to it was when you remarked that Surgeon had been altered so as to 'do no harm' mentally as well as physically and also when you mentioned that Surgeon's ability to read emotions was getting better."
"Surgeon is programmed with medical ethics. It would place physical survival above the things you are suggesting."
"Would it?" Asked Starr rhetorically. "Surgeon can read emotions, it probably has a better understanding of minds than any human alive because of it. Would it not realise that physical condition is nothing to mental condition. Who has suffered the greater loss, Doctor, the person who loses a leg or the person who loses their mind. Surgeon must know this."
"Your theory is possible." Acknowledged Mines, speaking as though the words were ripped out of his heart. "But it can not be correct because you yourself mentioned the fact that what led you here was that some of Surgeon's patients were dying after their operations."
"Ah, but it does. Surgeon realised that those people desperately wanted to live. So it gave them the mental happiness of thinking that they'd been saved just before they died. Its actions are totally predictably according to my theory."
"Except for one thing, Starr." Mines' voice was growing savage. To say that he did not like this young upstart saying that he did not understand his life's work was an understatement to say the least. "Surgeon knows that the mind depends on the body to function. Thus, without the body, the mind is dead anyway. That would override what you have just suggested."
Starr appeared to think for a second and then snapped his fingers, making Mines jump. "What would you do if Surgeon's body was damaged in some way?" He asked.
"I suppose we would move its mind into another body where it…"
"Exactly! Surgeon could not comprehend that the same thing could not be done to a human mind. Surgeon would thus believe the mind to the most important thing to save because the body can always be replaced."
"But Surgeon knows that human brains are dependant of the body for energy." Mines fought back.
"Tell me, Doctor." Replied Starr icily. "Where does Surgeon's mind get its energy from?"
The fight finally over Mines fell back into the chair which he had luckily been standing in front of. He cradled his head in his hands. "I see," he murmured quietly in defeat, "now I see."