Sunday, December 31, 2023

Annual Reflections at the End of 2023

Keeping with my tradition for this blog, I am ending this calendar year with my retrospective on the past year and some musings looking forward. The number of postings I make to this blog continues to decline each year. It is not that I do not have a lot to say, but rather I do not seem to have as much time to say it.

One thought has been to move to a different medium, such as a podcast. While I do listen to a fair number of podcasts, I still myself seem to prefer my words to be written. If nothing else, text seems more accessible. Another option would be to switch to something like a Substack newsletter, and I subscribe to several of those, but I have no interest in monetizing this blog, so Blogspot still seems like the easiest way to go.

In any case, the year 2023 was a transitional year for me. After serving as inaugural leader of both the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology (DMICE) and the OHSU Biomedical Informatics Graduate Program for a couple decades, I decided to step back from both leadership roles. With both entities in good shape, but needing some reinvigoration, not to mention institutional reinvestment, the time seemed right to step back. There is good interim leadership, and my hope is that OHSU will choose to recruit strong permanent leadership in the year ahead.

Despite stepping back from leadership, I am still busy and gratified with my work. I have had more time to devote to research and teaching. My research program in information retrieval (IR, also known as search) continues to be productive and well-funded, with several grants that will last through at least the next few years. Likewise, my teaching activity, mainly centered around my introductory course in biomedical and health informatics that is offered as a graduate course, continuing education course (the famous "10x10"), and as a medical student course, also keeps me busy.

A former Dean-then-President of OHSU reminded me years ago that when you step above the department chair role in academic medicine, you mostly leave behind your academic work. It became clear to me this year that my passion and enthusiasm lie more in the intellectual work of informatics and less in building new programs. I did plenty in the latter over the years but now hope to focus the rest of my career on the intellectual work of the field.

And there is much new intellectual work in informatics and related areas to keep us busy. Another big transition for 2023 was the emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI). Although generative AI had been around for a half-decade or so, a real turning point was the November 30, 2022 release of ChatGPT. There is clearly as much hype as there is reality, but there is no question its impact in the long run will be profound.

Generative AI impacts me in many ways. Clearly in education, it has caused teachers at all levels to reassess assignments and assessments of students. Almost everything in the assignments that I give students can be aided with ChatGPT. I will be writing more about this in the months ahead, but I agree with those who advocate we incorporate generative AI and not fight it or pretend it does not exist. It will likely require a combination of policy and students adhering to honor codes about how they do their work.

My research in the area of IR is also impacted by generative AI. With the 2020 publication of the fourth edition of my textbook in the field, I was beginning to wonder how much more research that IR needed. Clearly search is ubiquitous and a vital part of any intellectual work. While generative AI has large impacts for how we search for information, especially answers to questions, I note in a paper currently in preprint form and hopefully accepted for publication soon, there is still a role for seeking sources of knowledge and knowing the authority of those who produce those sources.

One subject I wrote a great deal about in recent years but has faded some from the forefront is COVID-19. This virus is still with us and is likely to continue to be so for much time to come. And the other impacts caused by the pandemic, namely the continuation of mostly remote work, may never revert to as it was before the pandemic. I am ambivalent about work that is mostly remote, even though I have been working that way for many years, especially with my travel. But I do appreciate the convenience of my morning commute being a walk down the stairs to my basement home office, although I also miss being around other people when working. Hopefully we will find a better balance in the future.

Heading into 2024, I do look forward to continuing this blog, and hopefully writing more. I also look forward to advances in the field of biomedical and health informatics and continuing to be a part of them.

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