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.
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
Narayana Health is using data analytics and AI to provide affordable, high-quality healthcare accessible to all. “Cost reduction and improvement in delivery of quality services can only happen through technology. I believe that digital interventions such as advanced analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence are key to make healthcare safer, affordable, and accessible to the world’s population,” says Dr. Devi Shetty, Founder and Chairman of Narayana Health. Read the story here.
In India there are only 20,000 ophthalmologists for its population of 1.3 billion people. Forus Health is using AI to predict and detect the onset of diabetic retinopathy to minimize the loss of vision as there are no solutions to reverse the condition. Forus Health has integrated AI-based retinal imaging APIs into its retina imaging devices that enables device operators to get AI-powered insights even when they are working at eye checkup camps in remote areas with no or intermittent connectivity to the cloud. Read the story here.
“Nearly three million heart attacks happen in India every year and there are 30 million people who are suffering from coronary diseases. It is almost an epidemic in this country,” says Dr. J. Shiv Kumar, Chief of Cardiology, Apollo Hospitals, one of India’s largest private healthcare companies in India. Apollo Hospitals partnered with Microsoft’s AI Network for Healthcare to develop an India-specific heart risk score and better predict cardiac diseases for general population with the help of Apollo’s database and expertise in the field, and Microsoft’s cloud and AI tools. Read the story here.
Microsoft India and SRL Diagnostics have partnered to expand the AI Network for Healthcare to pathology. This collaboration will help improve the quality of digital pathology for population screening by bringing together Microsoft’s Azure and AI innovations along with SRL’s world-class expertise in the study of cells and tissues (histology). Histopathology is a specialized form of pathology for analyzing tissue biopsies (mounted on glass slides) and is used for detecting numerous diseases. Histopathologists require highly efficient tools to assist in diagnosis, thus augmenting the demand for automated and innovative implementation of cloud and AI. Read about the announcement here.