- Google's artificial intelligence company DeepMind has published "really significant" research showing its algorithm can identify around 50 eye diseases by looking at retinal eye scans.
- DeepMind said its AI was as good as expert clinicians, and that it could help prevent people from losing their sight.
- DeepMind has been criticised for its practices around medical data, but cofounder Mustafa Suleyman said all the information in this research project was anonymised.
- The company plans to hand the technology over for free to NHS hospitals for five years, provided it passes the next phase of research.
Google's artificial intelligence company, DeepMind, has developed an AI which can successfully detect more than 50 types of eye disease just by looking at 3D retinal scans.
DeepMind published on Monday the results of joint research with Moorfields Eye Hospital, a renowned centre for treating eye conditions in London, in Nature Medicine.
The company said its AI was as accurate as expert clinicians when it came to detecting diseases, such as diabetic eye disease and macular degeneration. It could also recommend the best course of action for patients and suggest which needed urgent care.
What is especially significant about the research, according to DeepMind cofounder Mustafa Suleyman, is that the AI has a level of "explainability" that could boost doctors' trust in its recommendations.
"It's possible for the clinician to interpret what the algorithm is thinking," he told Business Insider. "[They can] look at the underlying segmentation."
In other words, the AI looks less like a mysterious black box that's spitting out results. It labels pixels on the eye scan that corresponds to signs of a particular disease, Suleyman explained, and can calculate its confidence in its own findings with a percentage score. "That's really significant," he said.
Suleyman described the findings as a "research breakthrough" and said the next step was to prove the AI works in a clinical setting. That, he said, would take a number of years. Once DeepMind is in a position to deploy its AI across NHS hospitals in the UK, it will provide the service for free for five years.
Patients are at risk of losing their sight because doctors can't look at their eye scans in time
British eye specialists have been warning for years that patients are at risk of losing their sight because the NHS is overstretched, and because the UK has an ageing population.
Part of the reason DeepMind and Moorfields took up the research project was because clinicians are "overwhelmed" by the demand for eye scans, Suleyman said.
"If you have a sight-threatening disease, you want treatment as soon as possible," he explained. "And unlike in A&E, where a staff nurse will talk to you and make an evaluation of how serious your condition is, then use that evaluation to decide how quickly you are seen. When an [eye] scan is submitted, there isn't a triage of your scan according to its severity."
Putting eye scans through the AI could speed the entire process up.
"In the future, I could envisage a person going into their local high street optician, and have an OCT scan done and this algorithm would identify those patients with sight-threatening disease at the very early stage of the condition," said Dr Pearse Keane, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
DeepMind's AI was trained on a database of almost 15,000 eye scans, stripped of any identifying information. DeepMind worked with clinicians to label areas of disease, then ran those labelled images through its system. Suleyman said the two-and-a-half project required "huge investment" from DeepMind and involved 25 staffers, as well as the researchers from Moorfields.
People are still worried about a Google-linked company having access to medical data
Google acquired DeepMind in 2014 for £400 million ($509 million), and the British AI company is probably most famous for AlphaGo, its algorithm that beat the world champion at the strategy game Go.
While DeepMind has remained UK-based and independent from Google, the relationship has attracted scrutiny. The main question is whether Google, a private US company, should have access to the sensitive medical data required for DeepMind's health arm.
DeepMind was criticised in 2016 for failing to disclose its access to historical medical data during a project with Royal Free Hospital. Suleyman said the eye scans processed by DeepMind were "completely anonymised."
"You can't identify whose scans it was. We're in quite a different regime, this is very much research, and we're a number of years from being able to deploy in practice," he said.
Suleyman added: "How this has the potential to have transform the NHS is very clear. We've been very conscious that this will be a model that's published, and available to others to implement.
"The labelled dataset is available to other researchers. So this is very much an open and collaborative relationship between equals that we've worked hard to foster. I'm proud of that work."