Google Searches For Ways To Put Artificial Intelligence To Use In Health Care
Google and its sister companies, parts of the holding company Alphabet, are making a huge investment in the field, with potentially big implications for everyone who interacts with Google — which is more than a billion of us.
The push into AI and health is a natural evolution for a company that has developed algorithms that reach deep into our lives through the Web.
“The fundamental underlying technologies of machine learning and artificial intelligence are applicable to all manner of tasks,” says Greg Corrado, a neuroscientist at Google. That’s true, he says, “whether those are tasks in your daily life, like getting directions or sorting through email, or the kinds of tasks that doctors, nurses, clinicians and patients face every day.”
Corrado knows a bit about that. He helped Google develop the algorithm that Gmail uses to suggest replies.
The company also knows the value of being in the health care sphere. “It’s pretty hard to ignore a market that represents about 20 percent of [U.S.] GDP,” says John Moore, an industry analyst at Chilmark Research. “So whether it’s Google or it’s Microsoft or it’s IBM or it’s Apple, everyone is taking a look at what they can do in the health care space.”
Google, which provides financial support to NPR, made a false start into this field a decade ago. The company backed off after a venture called Google Health failed to take root. But now, Google has rebooted its efforts.
Hundreds of employees are working on these health projects, often partnering with other companies and academics. Google doesn’t disclose the size of its investment, but Moore says it’s likely in the billions of dollars.
One of the prime movers is a sister company called Verily, which this year got a billion-dollar boost for its already considerable efforts. Among its projects is software that can diagnose a common cause of blindness called diabetic retinopathy and that is currently in use in India. Verily is also working on tools to monitor blood sugar in people with diabetes, as well as surgical robots that learn from each operation.
“In each of these cases, you can use new technologies and new tools to solve a problem that’s right in front of you,” says cardiologist Jessica Mega, Verily’s chief medical and scientific officer. “In the case of surgical robotics, this idea of learning from one surgery to another becomes really important, because we should be constantly getting better.”
Mega says the rise of artificial intelligence isn’t that big a departure from devices we’re used to, like pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, which jump into action in response to health signals from the body. “So patients are already seeing this intersection between technology and health care,” she says. “It’s just we’re hitting an inflection point.”
That’s because the same kinds of algorithms that are giving rise to self-driving cars can also operate in the health care sphere. It’s all about managing huge amounts of data.
Hospitals have gigabytes of information about the typical patient in the form of electronic health records, scans and sometimes digitized pathology slides. That’s fodder for algorithms to ingest and crunch. And Mega says there’s a potential to wring a lot more useful information out of it.
“There’s this idea that you are healthy until you become sick,” she says, “but there’s really a continuum” between health and disease. If computer algorithms can pick up early signs of a slide toward disease, that could help people avoid getting sick.
But medical data aren’t typically collected for research purposes, so there are gaps. To close those, Verily has partnered with Duke University and Stanford University in an effort called Project Baseline, which seeks to recruit 10,000 volunteers to give tons more data to the company.