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Alphabet's DeepMind aims to quiet critics with new deal to access UK medical data

Alphabet's DeepMind aims to quiet critics with new deal to access UK medical data


The company is building an app that alerts doctors when patients are in trouble

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The Streams app
The Streams app

DeepMind, the British AI firm owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has signed a new five-year deal to use data collected by the UK’s National Health Service. The agreement with the NHS Royal Free Hospital Trust in London replaces a previous deal that attracted controversy over its lack of official oversight. Under the terms of the new deal, DeepMind will handle personally identifiable medical records for some 1.6 million patients, including medical history dating back five years. The agreement also includes stricter data regulation, including "technical audits" of DeepMind's systems.

Using data from the Royal Free, DeepMind has built an app named Streams that alerts doctors when patients are in danger of developing acute kidney injury (AKI) — a common but often overlooked condition. "10,000 people a year are dying from acute kidney injury, these are entirely preventable deaths," Mustafa Suleyman, head of DeepMind Health, told the Financial Times. "We can trigger an alert that allows nurses or doctors to take preventative action, like giving intravenous antibiotics when your kidneys are dehydrated, to prevent escalation to the ICU." The app is currently being tested in pilot schemes, and will be rolled out to select NHS hospitals in 2017. In the future, its functionality could be expanded to handle data for other conditions in addition to AKI.

DeepMind isn't using AI to analyze the data, but says that could happen in future

Despite DeepMind’s assurances that it is following every necessary safety regulation in handling patients’ medical records, many experts are still wary about the deal. One criticism is that DeepMind’s parent company Alphabet is essentially mining the NHS for data (collected at the expense of the UK taxpayer) which it will then use to develop services it will sell to other countries. While DeepMind says it’s not using the data to train its "machine learning algorithms," and that this would require a new legal agreement, it is using it to create an API for managing health data via apps. This is something that the company could potentially monetize in future, although when asked whether this was the intention by TechCrunch, Suleyman only said: "I don’t know."

The company is currently paid by the NHS to create the Streams app, but says it charges only a "modest fee" that is "almost nothing." The partnership between DeepMind and the NHS is currently under examination by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office and the country’s National Data Guardian.