My mother bought her first GPS in the 1990s. A few months later, she came home angry because it had directed her to the wrong side of the city, making her an hour late. “That’s too bad,” I said, and we went on with our lives. We both understood that commercial GPS was a new technology and wasn’t infallible, but one wasted hour was a small price to pay for the 99 percent of driving trips on which it worked correctly. We knew that with further testing and user feedback, GPS technology would continue to improve.
Things would have been different if that technology with a 1 percent failure rate was a pacemaker or artificial valve implanted in my mom’s heart and designed to keep her alive.
But how can we expect technology to improve if a person’s health is at stake? It is unethical to test new medical devices on patients without ample evidence they will work; extensive animal testing, clinical trials and a complicated FDA approval process are necessary before such devices go to market. This means potentially lifesaving treatments can take years to reach patients.