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Baidu launches medical chatbot to help Chinese doctors diagnose patients

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An English translation of Baidu's Melody Chatbot

Chinese search engine giant Baidu is launching a medical chatbot designed to make diagnosing illnesses easier. The conversational bot is named Melody and comes built into the company's iOS and Android Baidu Doctor app, which launched in China in 2015. Baidu Doctor allows users to contact local doctors, book appointments, and ask questions, with the chatbot intended to speed up this process.

"What we found when operating Baidu Doctor is that when a patient asks a question, often the initial query doesn’t have enough information for a doctor to make the most confident decision," Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu's Silicon Valley research center, tells The Verge. He says that what's needed is a conversation where the doctor narrows down information about the patient's symptoms. When did the headaches start, for example, and how long do they last; is the pain local or general, and so on.

"[Melody] asks those additional questions," says Ng. "And as they're generated by AI, they're reactive, responding to what you've already said." He stresses, though, that Melody is not a replacement for doctors — it's merely intended to inform the advice that they offer. "By gathering more information for the doctor we believe it will help them make better diagnoses."

The bot is powered by Baidu's deep learning and natural language processing systems, which the company has been investing in for years. The company also has the advantage of access to China's huge market of hundreds of millions of potential users, allowing it to access to a lot of data to improve its conversational skills. Currently the bot is only available in China, but Baidu is actively looking to explore new markets. "We are in discussion with healthcare services around the world, including Europe and the US," says Ng. "We're interested in helping with healthcare globally."

A number of startups in the US and UK have launched similar apps, including Your.MD and Babylon Health. As with Baidu's chatbot, they use conversational bots to perform basic triage on patients. The apps have performed well in limited head-to-head comparisons with nurses, asking similar questions and coming to similar conclusions, but how they might fit into a whole country's health care system is a far more challenging question.

How, for example, will such medical apps be regulated, and what happens if they're embraced by local governments, perhaps similar to how certain towns have decided to subsidize Uber instead of investing in public transit? And what happens to patients' data? (Ng says that while patient data is encrypted, all interactions with the bot are "logged.")

Baidu's hope is that their medical AI won't supplant doctors, but just encourage more active health care. "There's always this debate when you build technology, whether it'll expand employment." says Ng. The invention of the automobile, for example, led to greater employment of taxi drivers. "But we'll see what happens with healthcare," he says, adding that so much change is coming to the industry as more information is digitized; turned into productive fodder for AI projects like Baidu's chatbot.

For Baidu, it seems the focus is just on what it can deliver now. The company cites statistics from the World Health Organization that the world faces a deficit of some 13 million doctors and health care professionals over the next 20 years. "I think the shortage of healthcare providers is acute," says Ng. "We see doctors seeing huge numbers of patients every day — upwards of 80, 100, every day. We can help."

Update October 11th, 1PM ET: Updated with additional comments from Andrew Ng.