When Google bought DeepMind for $500 million in 2014, it was just one of a number of artificial intelligence (AI) acquisitions, albeit a highly expensive one. Since then, DeepMind has taken center stage in the tech giant’s push to become the world leader in AI and machine learning, with Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt labelling the company ‘one of the greatest British success stories of the modern age.’
Much of the work DeepMind has completed thus far may seem frivolous, teaching itself to play classic arcade games like Pong and Space Invaders, for example. However, the ability for machines to beat these games has wide reaching consequences. Its victory over legendary Go player Lee Se-dol was said by The Verge to be a ‘huge moment in the history of artificial intelligence, and something many predicted would be decades away.’ It also won the 2016 Innovation Lions Grand Prix.
DeepMind has committed itself to many projects over the years, but its work with the NHS is perhaps the best evidence of the widespread benefits the firm could bring to the world. The company has now followed up its work on kidney failure alongside the UK’s Royal Free Hospital London by announcing another collaboration with the world famous Moorfields Eye Hospital in east London.
DeepMind's AI technology will be applied by Moorfields to one million anonymous OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) scans, the aim being that the machine learning system will teach itself to, eventually, recognize any conditions that pose a threat to someone’s eyesight from just one digital eye scan, such as age-related macular degeneration and sight loss that occurs as a result of diabetes.
It is hoped that the research will enable eye care professionals to make faster, more accurate diagnoses. DeepMind claims that patients who receive the correct treatment when it’s needed stand a far better chance of retaining their site, particular in the case of diabetes adding that up to 98% of severe sight loss resulting from diabetes can be prevented by early detection and treatment.
Moorfields Professor Sir Peng Tee Khaw said: ‘Our research with DeepMind has the potential to revolutionize the way professionals carry out eye tests and could lead to earlier detection and treatment of common eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration. With sight loss predicted to double by the year 2050 it is vital we explore the use of cutting-edge technology to prevent eye disease.’
DeepMind has not made it through without attracting its fair share of criticism. Its partnership with Royal Free Hospital drew ire because it appeared the company had access to far more data than it needed, as well as an apparent lack of transparency because the the hospital was not upfront with patients about the project and failed to inform them that their personal information was being provided to a commercial entity.
This time, they are on more solid ground. Explicit patient consent is not required as the scans are historic, which means the results won’t affect the care of current patients, and the hospital will also have access to related anonymous information about their eye conditions and disease management. As DeepMind’s AI technology gets more advanced, these kinds of important projects are going to become more and more common, and for Google, a company that has always said its primary objective was doing good - or at least, not be evil - this is likely to make it a hugely important part of its operations.