Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ask Your Doctor if Google is Right for You!

According to an article by Lance Whitney on CNET this morning, Google is now using is Knowledge Graph side panel to show more "relevant medical facts" in response to queries on medical topics. I was skeptical about Knowledge Graph when it was launched and have not paid very much attention to it. My bottom line was that Google was taking a rather naïve approach to semantics, which worked when it worked and did not matter very much when it did not. While all parties involved make it clear that Google is no substitute for consulting a physician, I am sure those guys know as well as anyone else how badly medical care for the general public has deteriorated. Many people are likely to take an any-port-in-a-storm attitude towards Google, even if the port happens to be accessible only through a very hazardous passage.

Actually, I am not even sure how well this new toy actually works. I decided to draw upon a recent consultation I had with a "real" doctor. I started typing "Am I still allergic;" and I was pleased to see that "am I still allergic to penicillin" was offered as a completion. However, there was no Knowledge Graph on the results page. Furthermore, as is the case with every Google search, there was an advertising link preceding all search results.

This reminded me of John Oliver's return to HBO this week. His extended piece was on the dangers of intimate relations between drug companies and physicians. Anyone who watches television knows the extent to which the pharmaceutical industry now dominates commercial time, all with the necessary punch line "Ask your doctor." Oliver's point is that, due to the ways in which the industry influences the doctors, you have to be very careful just what you ask your doctor and how you interpret what (s)he says. Since advertising is still Google's primary revenue stream, can we really expect "knowledge" from Google search results (with or without that Knowledge Graph); or will be even more vulnerable to corporate interference than we are when actually consulting a physician?

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