AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
One of the biggest corporations on the planet is taking a serious interest in the intersection of artificial intelligence and health. AI is this month's theme on All Tech Considered.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")
CORNISH: Google and its sister companies are making a huge investment, and that has big implications for everyone who interacts with Google, which is most of us, as well as the rest of the emerging industry. NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: When Gmail suggests possible replies, it's using artificial intelligence to come up with them. Greg Corrado, a neuroscientist at Google, helped develop that feature. His sights are now set much higher.
GREG CORRADO: The fundamental underlying technologies of machine learning and artificial intelligence are applicable to all manner of tasks, 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.
HARRIS: Since about 20 percent of the U.S. economy revolves around health care, it's no surprise that Google is interested. After a false start into this area a few years ago, Google has rebooted its efforts. With its sister companies, it has projects in everything from diabetes control and software that can diagnose serious eye disease to surgical robots that learn from their own experience.
JESSICA MEGA: And in each of these cases, you can use new technologies and new tools to solve a problem that's right in front of you.
HARRIS: Cardiologist Jessica Mega is chief medical and scientific officer of Verily, a Google sister company that is leading many of these projects.
MEGA: 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 when we think about these fields.
HARRIS: Verily recently got a billion dollar boost for its already considerable efforts. Mega says the rise of artificial intelligence isn't that big a departure from things we're used to like pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.
MEGA: Patients are already seeing this intersection between technology and health care. It's just we're hitting an inflection point.
HARRIS: Why are we hitting the inflection point right now?
MEGA: There's a difference in the way computing is being done. Data no longer is living in one place. And it's less about where you compute. And it's really more now, how do you compute?
HARRIS: Hospitals have gigabytes of information about the typical patient in the form of electronic health records, scans, sometimes digitized pathology slides and all sorts of other data. That's fodder for algorithms to ingest and to crunch, and Mega says we could be wringing a lot more useful information out of it.
MEGA: There's this idea that you are healthy until you become sick, but there's really a continuum and likely signs of the progression. And the idea is to try to capture those pieces of insights.
HARRIS: But medical data isn't collected for research, so it has gaps. To close those, Verily has partnered with Duke University and Stanford to recruit 10,000 volunteers to give tons more data to the company. Judith Washburn, a 73-year-old resident of Palo Alto, saw a recruiting ad and figured, what the heck? She signed up.
JUDITH WASHBURN: A couple months later, I got a call to go in. And it's two days of testing - so two different weeks. And it's very thorough.
HARRIS: She had heart scans, blood tests, skin swabs, stress tests - a checkup on steroids, if you pardon the expression. Her husband, James Davis, decided he'd give it a go as well.
JAMES DAVIS: They were having trouble finding African American participants at the time, so I was pretty much a shoo-in for the project.
HARRIS: What inspired you to share intimate details with the project here?
DAVIS: I'm aware of people who donate their bodies to medical science when they die. I think that's late for that. So it's sort of a way of donating your body while it's still alive.
HARRIS: The retired aerospace engineer also got an added benefit. The project diagnosed a serious heart condition, and he had triple bypass surgery. The couple replies to quarterly questionnaires. A gizmo under their mattress tracks their sleep patterns. And they each wear a watch that monitors their hearts. It also counts their steps sort of.
WASHBURN: They haven't quite figured out your exercise yet. And in fact, I can knit and get steps.
HARRIS: Aerobic knitting - I like it.
WASHBURN: (Laughter) Yeah, I know. That's great.
HARRIS: Of course all this highly personal information goes into the database of a private corporation. Both Washburn and Davis thought about that before signing up but ultimately concluded that's OK.
WASHBURN: Depends upon what they're using it for. And if it's all for research, I'm fine with that.
HARRIS: Here's the thing. Some of the most useful data could be what Google collects while you're running a Google search using Gmail or using its Chrome browser. Reed Tuckson, a physician who advises Verily, sees this information as a potential goldmine for efforts to maintain health and avoid disease.
REED TUCKSON: As companies like Google and other traditional consumer-oriented companies start moving into this space, it is certainly clear that they bring the capability of taking much of the information they have about us and be able to apply it.
HARRIS: For example, a person's browsing history can reveal a lot about what they buy, how they exercise and other facets of their lifestyle.
TUCKSON: We now understand that that has a great deal to do with the health decisions that we make.
HARRIS: Tuckson, who is on a National Academy of Medicine working group on artificial intelligence in medicine, says Google needs to tread carefully around these privacy issues, but he's bullish on the technology.
TUCKSON: We should remember that the status quo is not acceptable by itself and that we've got to use every tool at our disposal, use them intelligently to work on behalf of the American people's best quality of health. And I think that's why it's exciting.
HARRIS: In their latest push, Google and its sister companies have been recruiting people influential in the world of medicine like Reed Tuckson both as advisers and as staff. John Moore at a research firm that focuses on medical technology says that's smart. The company needs to build credibility in the medical sphere.
JOHN MOORE: I think Google is trying to have those people that can basically proof out what Google is doing and be able to stand up and say, yes, Google can do this.
HARRIS: What does that mean for the rest of the industry? I mean, there's obviously so much going on in AI in health care right now - lots of little companies, medium-sized companies popping up and tried to claim space in this area. Should they be worried about this giant company stepping in?
MOORE: Yes and no. I mean, anyone should take Google very seriously.
HARRIS: Moore says there are other big players like Apple and Microsoft who can hold their own.
MOORE: For other AI companies that don't have those resources, they're going to have to be very judicious in picking the niches they want to target, niches that are ones that, frankly, Google is not terribly interested in.
HARRIS: Google has a potentially enormous advantage considering how much data it collects about us every day. And I should mention Google is among NPR's financial supporters. But scientist Greg Corrado says the company is well aware of the sensitivity of putting that information to use and is thinking about how to approach that.
CORRADO: It has to be something that is driven by the patient's desire to use their own information to better their wellness.
HARRIS: And in a world where people are increasingly concerned about how their personal data are exploited, that could be even more of a challenge than building the computer algorithms to digest and interpret it all. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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