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Peter Lee smiling at the camera

Unique opportunity for India to leap ahead with AI in healthcare: Dr. Peter Lee

Can AI find and connect the dots to help researchers discover cures for diseases that have no cures, yet? Can the cloud be the backbone to ensure every person on the planet has access to affordable, quality care? Can technology help doctors predict and provide precision diagnostics customized for every patient? These are just some of the questions Dr. Peter Lee and his team at Microsoft are trying to solve.

As the Corporate Vice President for Microsoft Healthcare, Dr. Lee leads an organization that’s working on technologies for better and more efficient healthcare using cloud and AI. “When I was asked to lead this team about two-and-a-half years ago, it felt like we were dropped in the middle of the Indian Ocean and asked to find land. We had no idea which direction to swim,” he laughs while addressing employees at Microsoft’s India Development Center in Hyderabad.

an infographic that shows how Adaptive Biotechnologies and Microsoft are working to decode the immune system to diagnose disease. The process starts from the blood sample (our immune system is a very sophisticated diagnostic machine). In immunosequencing we read every immune cell that stores diagnostic information. We generate a map of the immune system by matching trillions of T-cells to the diseases they recognize. This map of the immune system will be used by doctors and researchers to improve disease diagnosis.
Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies partnership using AI to decode immune system; diagnose, treat disease

Talking about being dropped in the ocean, Lee’s organization has been at the forefront of out of the box ideas like under-sea data centers, chatbots like Xiaoice, and deep neural networks for simultaneous language translation in Skype.

“Do you know that the machine learning models that helped us translate languages are now helping map and decode the human immune system?” he asks employees before introducing the work his team is doing with Adaptive Biotechnologies where they are using AI to create the “antigen map” – a complete map of which T-cells bind to which antigens.

We caught up with Dr. Lee to discuss the potential of AI to change the way we approach healthcare, its impact and relevancy for India.

“There is an opportunity here in India, that’s unique in the world, to leap ahead by designing systems that enable better reach for healthcare in rural parts of the country and to bring the power of cloud and AI to the broader world. India is an important crucible for innovation and healthcare,” he says.

What follows are some edited excerpts from our conversation.

Let’s start by talking about the future. Will we still go to a clinic to see a doctor for something like the common flu 20 years from now?

A lot of change is happening in basic biological science and medical research. We have these amazing advances in genomics, immunomics and new kinds of imaging. Then there is this increasing ability to get data from wearables and social determinants in real-time. So, 20 years from now we will be able to integrate the data and provide highly personalized, targeted diagnostics and therapeutics. People’s access to that will be made much easier through digital means. Essentially, it will enable 24/7 access to the care you need and precise targeting of the care that you want.

Everyone’s looking at AI as that magic pill that can solve any disease for which we have not yet found a cure. How much of it is hype and how much is real?

There is so much hope around AI and much of the hope is justified because the advances we have been making in areas like deep learning and reinforcement learning have been spectacular, outstripping even our optimistic projections.

As we think about AI and healthcare, we see tremendous potential in precision medicine. It is also about making doctors and nurses much more satisfied in their work by providing them new user experiences. Another goal is to make healthcare more accessible and affordable even for people in the remotest of areas.

At the same time, there is a lot of hype. When we are dealing with medicine and healthcare, patients’ safety and privacy end up being a big concern. So, balancing these two ideas, really embracing the possibility of AI and machine learning while also taking special care of patients’ safety is a unique set of challenges in this space.

But for AI models to get better you need to keep feeding it with data. How do we maintain this balance, especially in healthcare where it is a huge concern?

At Microsoft, we just take privacy so seriously that our attention to data compliance regulations is one of the best in the industry. And, this even extends to the data format that we are building into our cloud today. For example, the emerging FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standard. When we are working on these things, we have a commitment to not owning the data but instead providing data as a foundation to create models that would be in the service of our customers.

When we are developing these models, we also pay attention to the potential that there are biases or unexpected failure modes and all our researchers really design to understand these things in order to have absolute industry-leading privacy, data security compliance, and freedom from unintended biases.

What is the role that doctors will play in the future when it comes to AI being able to diagnose everything?

Our view is that AI will be an amazing way to augment what doctors, nurses, and other caregivers can do. When a doctor is really trying to get the precise diagnosis, there is a lot of judgement and experience involved in doing this. So, what AI can do is liberate much of the other mundane and less creative parts of a doctor’s work and allow the doctor to really concentrate on what matters most.

Equally important is to provide better productivity so that doctors can focus on the patient instead of being weighed down by the burden of clinical documents or other administrative details. We have Project EmpowerMD that uses AI to assist in the creation of a medical note of the conversation between a physician and patient that enables the physician to focus on taking care of the patient.

Talking about markets like India where there is a huge population and a smaller number of doctors, what is the role that cloud and AI technologies can play?

India is an important crucible for innovation and healthcare. The technology foundation and investments made in India are really bearing fruit. In fact, there is a well-laid infrastructure and advanced technology base here in India. At the same time, the country is transforming in important ways and as that transformation happens, there is an opportunity to rethink, almost from a clean sheet of paper, a cloud and AI-powered healthcare system.

There is an opportunity here in India, that’s unique in the world, to leap ahead by designing systems for the service of people to enable better reach for healthcare in rural parts of India and to bring the powers of cloud and AI to the broader world.

Lastly, on the occasion of World Health Day, how do you envisage Microsoft’s role in empowering the healthcare industry in India with the help of AI and cloud technologies?

We are incredibly excited, and I would say proud to be involved with the World Health Day through our activities in India. We have these wonderful collaborations with incredible organizations like Apollo Hospitals, Forus, SRL Diagnostics, and other players that are really thinking about the future of healthcare and how cloud and AI can make a real difference.

The development of new ways to use predictive analytics to know ahead of time who might be at risk of cardiac disease. Or to be able to predict ahead of time, based on data, the children that might be at risk of an onset of blindness due to uncorrected refractive error. These ideas are taking root here in India and they would be deployed in ways which can reach even in the most far off world communities. All of these things are part and parcel of the goals of World Health Day and we couldn’t really be more excited and proud to be a part of it.

Photo: Dan DeLong for Microsoft


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