In­vest­ing in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence could help the NHS pay for it­self

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - James Wise is a part­ner at Balder­ton Cap­i­tal, the Eu­ro­pean ven­ture cap­i­tal firm JAMES WISE

Can ro­bots re­ally save the NHS? Last week Jeremy Hunt, the sec­re­tary of state for health and so­cial care dou­bled down on am­bi­tious plans for the de­ploy­ment of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware across the NHS, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on cancer de­tec­tion. The idea that soft­ware pro­grammes could spot cancer ear­lier than trained ra­di­ol­o­gists may seem out­landish, yet for peo­ple work­ing with health­care start-ups in Bri­tain, Mr Hunt’s plan seems not just fea­si­ble but per­haps not am­bi­tious enough. Rather than just look­ing at what tech­nolo­gies the NHS could adopt from the out­side to im­prove care, it should be look­ing to de­velop its own ser­vices to pro­vide to the world.

We all know there is no tech­no­log­i­cal “magic wand” that can be waved to cure the many chal­lenges fac­ing the NHS. How­ever the progress made in re­cent years by fron­tier com­pa­nies us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in fields as var­ied as cancer de­tec­tion and di­a­betes man­age­ment now of­fer gen­uine prom­ise.

Ge­nomic se­quencers, ma­chines which turn our ge­netic code into us­able data, are now in­creas­ing in power and fall­ing in cost quicker than the semi­con­duc­tors which power every com­puter on the planet. Al­go­rithms de­vel­oped by Google are help­ing Bri­tish doc­tors spot signs of eye dis­ease ear­lier than ever be­fore. And tech­nol­ogy start-ups like Sophia Ge­net­ics have al­ready di­ag­nosed can­cers quicker and with greater ac­cu­racy for over 200,000 pa­tients across the world us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Com­bin­ing ge­nomic data with im­prove­ments in the ac­cu­racy of blood tests, com­puter vi­sion abil­i­ties and even robotic surgery is chang­ing mod­ern health­care.

The UK is not alone in recog­nis­ing the im­por­tance of such soft­ware. China com­mit­ted 60bn yuan (£7bn) in 2015 to fur­ther re­search in ge­nomics and in 2016, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama pro­posed a $1bn (£710m) in­vest­ment to cure cancer, de­scrib­ing it as a “moon shot”. Tim Cook, CEO of Ap­ple which is now the world’s most valu­able public com­pany, says their soft­ware could make a “sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion” to health­care.

The UK may not be able to match that level of fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment, but the NHS, in its 70th an­niver­sary year, is al­ready in a stronger po­si­tion than many soft­ware com­pa­nies or for­eign gov­ern­ments. For ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent health­care so­lu­tions to work, they need huge amounts of data and ex­per­tise and it is in these two fields that the NHS truly ex­cels.

Few health­care in­sti­tu­tions are able to pro­vide care from cra­dle to grave and from the com­mon cold to cancer. In­creas­ingly, many peo­ple be­lieve Google has an ad­van­tage in health­care given most peo­ple search for their symp­toms on­line well be­fore they go to a doc­tor. But Google has lit­tle com­pared to the amounts of hu­man ex­per­tise held in the decades of ex­pe­ri­ence of our nurses, doc­tors and sur­geons have amassed, or the in­sights they hold from car­ing for the 1m pa­tients that use the NHS every day.

By com­bin­ing these in­sights, the NHS could de­velop world lead­ing soft­ware and ser­vices. By work­ing with our aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and start-ups to de­velop ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent so­lu­tions, a strong sta­te­owned NHS could be­come a global provider of ex­cel­lent, ef­fi­cient and eth­i­cal health­care soft­ware while gen­er­at­ing cap­i­tal to re­duce the cost of car­ing for our most vul­ner­a­ble here at home. A free na­tional health­care ser­vice, pro­vid­ing Bri­tish health­care soft­ware to the world.

As some­one who works with start-ups ev­ery­day, I’ve seen the speed of change in the world of dig­i­tal health in­crease dra­mat­i­cally, and if we want the NHS to cel­e­brate its cen­te­nary in years to come, it has to plan for such change to­day. The tech­no­log­i­cal abil­ity to do this isn’t far away, the real chal­lenge is en­sur­ing we get the cap­i­tal, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal sup­port re­quired to get there.

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