Futurist Tom Koulopoulos says crisis brings 'opportunity to reimagine ourselves'

June 2024
During his keynote address at the 2024 Catholic Health Assembly, author and futurist Tom Koulopoulos shares his vision of a future where technology plays an ever-widening role in health care but the human aspect remains vital. Jerry Naunheim Jr./CHA

SAN DIEGO — Author and futurist Tom Koulopoulos knew he would make the room full of health care leaders and providers bristle when he said: "These are the good times."

Many in his audience at the 2024 Catholic Health Assembly chuckled nervously. But he explained himself.

"One of the greatest gifts God gives us is a moment of crisis," he said. "It is an opportunity to reimagine ourselves, our role, our meaning in life ... that's when you discover meaning."

Technology, including artificial intelligence, is developing at unimaginable speed and the health care sector should harness and embrace it to allow people to flourish, he said during a keynote address.

Koulopoulos focused his discussion on two questions: What technologies will allow humans to flourish? What will not change?

Technology is about behavior, he said. He asked how many in the crowd checked their smartphone from bed before waking up that morning. Most everyone raised their hands. Fundamental behavior changes such as people constantly checking their phones are insidious, he said, and sometimes people don't realize that as they are using technology, they are using AI.

He said AI is going to become more and more a part of life. "Part of the responsibility we have both ethically and morally, I believe, is to go into that future consciously, with our eyes wide open, so that we make informed choices about where AI is and isn't appropriate in our lives, in our work, in our organizations, in our society."

Extraordinary advances
Koulopoulos showed photos of early computers, large enough to take up a room, and the first "portable" computer, shown sitting on a forklift. About 1,000 computing devices existed in 1960, more than 10 billion devices exist today, and many more will exist in the future, he said. Today's devices are as powerful as the human mind as far as computational capability, he said.

"We are on the precipice of the most extraordinary technological advances humanity has ever seen," he said. "We are living it in the moment right now. And we — you, I — are the architects of this future."

With an image of an early computer on the screen behind him, Koulopoulos discusses how the evolution of computational technology and artificial intelligence is advancing health care. Jerry Naunheim Jr./CHA

He showed a photo of his son Adam playing computer games in front of three computer screens. His son's form of playing is unlike the outside play of his own childhood, he said, which used to bother him. However, he noted that his son doesn't care about the skin color of the other players, their religious background, or where they're from. His son just cares that they can play the game.

"Technology creates behaviors, and those behaviors may seem aberrant," said Koulopoulos. But he added that often those behaviors "allow us to flourish, to become more human."

He pointed to benefits he foresees coming from the use of AI in health care. For example, he said the detailed and life-spanning information in electronic medical records should improve continuity of care and move health care to more outcome-driven models.

He even flipped the idea that the cost of health care is a drag on economies, saying instead it in the future may be "the single biggest contributor" to growth in the gross domestic product.

Goodness or greed
During the keynote address, Koulopoulos showed a video clip of three versions of himself speaking and conversing with one another. He asked the audience to see if they could tell which versions were real or fake. He revealed all three were avatars.

"This will not be a period without enormous disruptive potential for all of us," he said. "We will question what is truth, we will question what is real, but no technology cuts in one direction. Every technology forces us to ask that fundamental question: Does the arc of humanity bend towards goodness or bend towards greed?"

He told a story of a time when he was 10 years old and got sick during a trip to Athens, Greece, where he grew up. He came back to the United States and was diagnosed with a severe case of hepatitis A. His doctor visited him daily in the hospital, and the doctor would always say, "Tommy, don't ever forget how much you can overcome."

Forty years later, Koulopoulos tracked down the doctor, called him, and was shocked the doctor remembered him. As they ended the call, the doctor told him: "I'm just really glad you called. It's good to hear from you. And, with all you got going on, don't forget, there's nothing you can't overcome."

Koulopoulos reminded the group that this kind of humanity should not change, and that humanity stands at "the beginning of an incredible era," he said.

He concluded: "My charge to you is to take that journey, to embrace it, to engage with these new technologies, to understand how they amplify our humanity, how they further your mission of helping the human condition flourish."


Koulopoulos offers health care leaders advice on cybersecurity, AI

After his keynote address at the 2024 Catholic Health Assembly, Tom Koulopoulos met with a group of health care leaders. He discussed issues like cybercrime and helping others adapt to artificial intelligence.

He advised health care systems to outsource cybersecurity efforts, because the work is moving too quickly for health systems to catch up. He also advised that reverse mentoring, or younger workers helping older ones, can help create a culture that is more cyber-aware.

It will be easier to use technology in the next five to 10 years because so much will become voice-based, he said. He encouraged people to learn about AI so they can engage with it.

"This is like creating a language," he said. "If you are illiterate, you cannot be part of a society."


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