Alibaba (BABA) is charting a way to push the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in diagnostics and healthcare to make medical treatment more accessible, timely, and affordable. Alibaba Cloud is actively working on AI-powered solutions to tackle heath care problems in China and globally. Here’s a look at Alibaba’s efforts to bring AI to the healthcare arena and why this exercise matters.
The World Health Organization database reveals that the world’s most populous nation, China, has a shortage of physicians with only 1.49 doctors available for every 1,000 people, lower than 2.55 in the U.S., 2.8 in the UK, and 3.37 in Australia. There is a further shortage of specialist doctors (such as radiologists and oncologists) despite the huge workload; such mismatches increase the chances of misdiagnosis and wrong treatment.
There is the problem of uneven distribution as well. Despite the advances made in the field of medicine, a high percentage of population faces challenges such as lack of access to health care; 43% of China’s population resides in rural areas, making it difficult for them to have timely access to medical examination.
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the leading cause of death in China and is a major public health concern. Not just China, there are several medical problems ailing the society globally. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world. The number of new cancer cases is expected to rise globally by about 70% over the next two decades as per the WHO update in February 2017. It highlights how late-stage presentation and inaccessible diagnosis and delayed treatment are accentuating the problem. This is where advancement in technology combined with medicine can make a difference.
One major step in the direction has been the launch of ET Medical Brain by Alibaba Cloud in March 2017. The ET Medical Brain is a suite of AI solutions designed to ease the workload of medical personnel. The suite basically uses computers to act as virtual assistants for patients and in medical imaging, drug development and hospital management; for instance, development of AI-based tumor diagnosis systems.
Alibaba Health also recently unveiled its first AI service for medical diagnostics called ‘Doctor You,’ which can use imaging in early diagnosis of cancer.
Other projects include the partnership between Alibaba Cloud and Wuhan Landing Medical High-tech Co. on a system that leverages AI and visual computation technologies to detect early stage cervical cancer by using cell cytology.
In 2016, the first large-scale bioinformatics analysis platform—BGI Online backed by Aliyun (Alibaba Cloud), Intel and BGI Genomics was launched, which is capable of sequencing human genome within 24 hours.
Further, Alibaba Cloud is working on a project to train machines to detect lung cancer using high-resolution CT scans. Aliyun has partnered with Intel and oncology big-data company LinkDoc to hold a competition with more than 3,000 participants to find the best real-world solution.
It is estimated that the overall market for AI in healthcare is expected to reach $7.98 billion by 2022, at a CAGR of 52.68% between 2017 and 2022. The factors driving market growth are increasing focus on precision medicine, cross-industry partnerships, need for reducing costs and time involved in processes, rising complexity and volume of data, overload on medical workforce, and the ability of AI to make a difference to all these factors. A report by Frost & Sullivan points out that AI has the potential to improve outcomes by 30 to 40% while cutting treatment costs by as much as 50%.
With the immense scope of advanced technology in healthcare, there is a rise in the number of start-ups looking to provide AI-based solutions for the healthcare ecosystem across different regions. It's not just start-ups, either. Technology giants such as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu are competing neck-to-neck with their counterparts in Silicon Valley—Google and IBM—to tap the growing market, and even to absorb top-notch talent.
In 2016, Baidu launched Melody—an AI-powered conversational bot designed to provide relevant information to doctors to assist with recommendations and treatment options. Tencent, meanwhile, backed iCarbonX by investing 1 billion yuan during its round-A financing. In May 2017, Tencent opened its AI research lab in Seattle.
Google’s DeepMind Health is working with NHS and other healthcare systems while IBM Watson’s cognitive healthcare solutions have already achieved great advances in various aspects of medicine and healthcare.
AI-based solutions can boost the overall quality of healthcare through faster and more accurate diagnostics, reduce human error, help provide remote location accessibility, and cut costs. While this can hugely benefit patients on one hand, it presents a great opportunity for companies such as Alibaba on the other, which can generate revenue by placing AI enabled healthcare services on the Cloud.