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In medicine, the computer, which started by keeping records and sending bills, now suggests diagnoses.
CADUCEUS knows some 4,000 symptoms of more than 500 diseases; MYCIN specializes in infectious diseases; PUFF measures lung functions. All can be plugged into a master network called SUMEX-AIM, with headquarters at Stanford in the West and Rutgers in the East. This may all sound like another step toward the disappearance of the friendly neighborhood G.P., but while it is possible that a family doctor would recognize 4,000 different symptoms, CADUCEUS is more likely to see patterns in what patients report and can then suggest a diagnosis. The process may sound dehumanized, but in one hospital where the computer specializes in peptic ulcers, a survey of patients showed that they found the machine "more friendly, polite, relaxing and com- prehensible" than the average physician. The microcomputer is achieving dramatic effects on the ailing human body. These devices control the pacemakers implanted in victims of heart disease; they pump carefully measured quantities of insulin into the bodies of diabetics; they test blood samples for hundreds of different al- lergies; they translate sounds into vibra tions that the deaf can "hear"; they stimulate deadened muscles with electric impulses that may eventually enable the paralyzed to walk.
In all the technologists' images of the future, however, there are elements of exaggeration and wishful thinking. Though the speed of change is extraordinary, so is the vastness of the landscape to be changed. New technologies have generally taken at least 20 years to establish themselves, which implies that a computer salesman's dream of a micro on every desk will not be fulfilled in the very near future. If ever.
Certainly the personal computer is not without its flaws. As most new buyers soon learn, it is not that easy for a novice to use, particularly when the manuals contain instructions like this specimen from Apple: "This character prevents script from terminating the currently forming output line when it encounters the script command in the input stream."
Another problem is that most personal computers end up costing considerably more than the ads imply. The $100 model does not really do very much, and the $1,000 version usually requires additional payments for the disc drive or the printer or the modem. Since there is very little standardization of parts among the dozens of new competitors, a buyer who has not done considerable homework is apt to find that the parts he needs do not fit the machine he bought.
Software can be a major difficulty (see box). The first computer buyers tended to be people who enjoyed playing with their machines and designing their own programs. But the more widely the computer spreads, the more it will have to be used by people who know no more about its inner workings than they do about the insides of their TV sets—and do not want to. They will depend entirely on the commercial programmers. Good programs are expensive both to make and to buy. Control Data I has invested $900 million in its PLATO educational series and has not yet turned a profit,