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Artificial Intelligence, community pharmacy, parrots and perfume

Malcolm E. Brown explores what AI could mean for the future of community pharmacy

Artificial intelligence’s (AI) impact on community pharmacy could be utopian or dystopian, depending on your perspective.

Being cheerful, AI could eliminate routine tasks like checking medicines against prescriptions, improving accuracy. Robots have dispensed for a generation at my local hospital. AI excels at handling large data, useful for checking drug interactions or unsafe doses and identifying patients who would benefit from medicine use review. This could free pharmacists for face-to-face patient counselling.

Knowledgeable enthusiasts have made a claim so extraordinary that it makes my hair stand up. If their claim comes to pass, you and I are so lucky to live now, during this epoch-moulding fork in history. They claim that any future substantial discovery in any field almost certainly will be AI-enabled.

Read more: From crisis to evolution: Community pharmacy’s transformation

Speculatively, AI could lead to a second renaissance, solving many intractable scientific problems. A “free” commonly available chatbot has an IQ of 155 (as assessed by the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale); the average human score is 100, Einstein’s was about 160. With significant investment in AI and genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR-Cas9, humans might ‘improve themselves’ and meld with AI, marking the next stage in human evolution. The pharmaceutical industry could play a key role in this, as it already does with anti-ageing drugs. Perhaps future community pharmacies might even stock the alchemists’ sought-after elixir of life.

I now turn to the dire predictions.

Many jobs, as we presently know them, will vanish. Top academically qualified professionals may be at particular risk. Shortly, the same may apply to human dispensing—even by the most alert, dedicated, engrossed and meticulous pharmacists who, by the end of the day, become as debilitated as wrung-out dishcloths. Within five to ten years, community pharmacists and GPs may even become AI-enabled robots that may, or may not, look like humans. They would not require holidays, pay, sleep, sick or maternity leave, pensions, trade unions and so on.

Read more: The mammoth in your pharmacy

Pharmaceutical AIs may seem so reliable and able that pharmacists will use them even though they do not fully understand what is going on inside their “black boxes”. They are also designed to appear friendly. In the opinion of historian philosopher Yuval Harari, AIs have hacked humankind's operating system.

Also, occasionally, with brass-necked confidence and magisterial aplomb, an AI vomits out something completely wrong. It "hallucinates", exposing that behind the jaw-dropping facade is but a loquacious, “stochastic parrot”. It has zero self-awareness, "divine spark", agency, free choice, morality or ethics. That matters to pharmacists bound by ethics.

Read more: I didn’t need an eye injury to see the NHS is broken

But before you heave a sigh of relief and think, "That's all right then," remember that AI, boosted by prodigious funding, appears to be developing exponentially. I tiptoe away from the resulting possible Armageddon. We have opened Pandora's box and cannot shut it. Fortunately, I have a cunning plan.

Briefly, and tongue (somewhat) in cheek, our strength is in becoming more human. Work on your humanity. Enhance your interpersonal, transferable skills. I have restarted writing using wet ink flowing from a fountain pen. A dab of perfume or aftershave may appeal to the humans in the room; essential oils such as peppermint and bergamot boast pharmaceutical pedigrees spanning millennia. Keep the perfume counter well stocked.


Dr Malcolm E. Brown is a retired community, hospital and industrial pharmacist, and is a sociologist and honorary careers mentor at the University of East Anglia.

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