Somewhat unexpectedly, Google asked me to talk on film about doctors who use Google Book Search. So lately, I’ve been thinking about the strange beast that Google Books has become. If you haven’t seen it recently, take another look. Initially modest, the project has evolved into a screamingly useful, many-headed creature built on a massive body of books — and I mean massive, as in the complete searchable text of several university libraries. Google Book Search also includes lots of extras, including links to book reviews, references on websites, references from other books, and Google Maps of every place each book mentions.
It’s safe to say, there’s never been anything like this before.
But how might doctors use Google Book Search? Several months ago, a group of medical students, residents and I were in the emergency department examining a patient who might have had necrotizing fasciitis. This condition, also known as “the flesh eating bacteria,” is as evil as it sounds. It must be diagnosed and treated quickly — often with extensive surgical debridement — or the patient will die. Atul Gawande, one of my favorite medical authors, had written about a patient with necrotizing fasciitis in his book Complications, which I’d recently read. It’s a great book, it contains a perfect description of the disease, and at that moment, I wished I had it in front of me. So I punched “gawande necrotizing fasciitis” into Google Book Search, and instantly the exact passage was on the screen.
It got me thinking. How many potential opportunities for teaching are lost because the original text isn’t available, short of taking a trip to the nearest medical library? How much knowledge lies dormant because no one can find it?
Choose any medical topic. Say, pheochromocytoma, a rare adrenaline-secreting tumor. Punch the topic into Google Book Search. In less than 10 seconds, the actual pages of the most recent textbook are scrolling on your screen, complete with all the figures, charts, and photographs relating to the diagnosis and treatment of this tumor. Google Book Search is an underused and unparalleled teaching resource. It's worth saying again: there’s never been anything like this before.
The full potential of Google Books has yet to be realized. What’s next? An Ebook reader? A subscription based service for the full text of books? A print on demand service? An artificial intelligence? The last idea may sound far-fetched, but George Dyson, visiting Google, had this to report:
Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. "We are not scanning all those books to be read by people," explained one of my hosts after my talk. "We are scanning them to be read by an AI."