Could AI halt blindness? DeepMind and this London hospital are finding out

Lynsey Barber
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Machines may be able to diagnose better than doctors (Source: Getty)

DeepMind, the pioneering British artificial intelligence company owned by Google, is researching how the technology may help save people's sight in a new partnership with leading London eye hospital Moorfields.

The firm's machine learning technology, which has already demonstrated its ability to beat humans at the chess-like game Go, will be used to analyse two conditions - diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) - which affect more than half a million people in the UK alone and are two of the biggest causes of blindness.

This will be done by using computers to read complex eye scans, a task currently performed by doctors, to see if the process can be made more efficient and accurate to detect conditions earlier and prevent sight deterioration.

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The firm, bought by Google for millions in 2014, will have access to millions of patient eye scans, but on an anonymous basis, from which the technology can learn.

"It’s early days for this work, but we’re optimistic about the long-term potential for machine learning technology to help eye health professionals diagnose and treat other diseases that, like macular degeneration, affect the lives of millions of people across the world. It’s a hugely exciting opportunity to make a difference to the NHS and its patients," the company said.

DeepMind has faced criticism over its previous partnerships with NHS Trusts and its access to personal data, despite assurances of encrypted information and previous partnerships with private companies to share data in recent years.

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"This has huge potential for patients" said Moorfields consultant ophthalmologist Pearse Keane. "It will allow us to get much earlier detection of these blinding diseases and as a result of that, I think we'll get much earlier intervention and much earlier treatment for these patients."

Keane was the one to approach DeepMind about partnering on the research and the two organisations are already exploring further agreements on research using the scans, DeepMind said in a more transparent Q + A than previous partnership announcements.

The research will also be submitted for peer review in the same way as academic research papers for scrutiny by medical experts.

DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman also sought to alay worries over the deal. In a blog post he wrote:

"Whether we’re helping clinicians provide day to day patient care with mobile apps or making breakthroughs in medical research, work in health requires data. Treating this data with respect really matters. There are different authorities that give different types of approvals and oversight for NHS data use: HSCIC, HRA, MHRA, ICO, Caldicott Guardians, and many, many more. We’re committed to working with all these groups, and making sure with their help that we get it right."

"In this work, we know that we’re held to the highest level of scrutiny. DeepMind operates autonomously from Google, and we’ve been clear from the outset that at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services."

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