eric_topol's picture
Professor of Genomics, The Scripps Translational Science Institute; Author, The Patient Will See You Now
Hunting for Root Cause: The Human Black Box

Root cause analysis is an attractive concept for certain matters in industry, engineering and quality control. A classic application is to determine why a plane crashed by finding the proverbial "black box" — the tamper-proof event data recorder. Even though this box is usually bright orange, the term symbolizes the sense of dark matter, a container with critical information to help illuminate what happened. Getting the black box audio recording is just one component of a root cause analysis for why a plane goes down.

Man is gradually being morphed into an event data recorder by virtue of each person's digital identity and presence on the web. Not only do we post our own data, sometimes unwittingly, but also others post information about us, and all of this is permanently archived. In that way it is close to tamper-proof. With increasing use of biosensors, high-resolution imaging (just think of our current cameras and video recording, no less digital medical imaging), and DNA sequencing, the human data event recorder will be progressively enriched with data and information.  

In our busy, networked lives with constant communication, streaming and distraction, the general trend has moved away from acquiring deep knowledge for why something happened.  This is best exemplified in health and medicine. Physicians rarely seek root cause. If a patient has a common condition such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma, he or she is put on some prescription drugs without any attempt at ascertaining why the individual crashed — certainly a new, chronic medical condition can be likened to such an event. There are usually specific reasons for these disorders but they are not hunted down. Taken to an extreme, when an individual dies and the cause is not known it is now exceedingly rare that an autopsy is ever performed. Doctors have generally caved in their quest to define root cause, and they are fairly representative of most of us. Ironically, this is happening at a time when there is unprecedented capability for finding the explanation. But we're just too busy.

So to tweak our cognitive performance in the digital world where there is certainly no shortage of data, it's time to use it and understand, as fully as possible, why unexpected or unfavorable things happen. Or even why something great transpired. It's a prototypic scientific concept that has all too often been left untapped. Each person is emerging as an extraordinary event recorder and part of the Internet of all things. Let's go deep. Nothing unexplained these days should go without a hunt.