GE, IBM Race to Deliver on A.I. Hype in Healthcare

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play a direct role in diagnosis, however, would likely take longer to get in the hands of customers because the FDA would have to sign off on them first, she says.

That raises an interesting issue: securing FDA clearance for A.I.-related software products might not be easy.

“I don’t think that the FDA has a clear plan in place for how they’re going to regulate and ensure that diagnostic tools are safe and effective for this particular application,” says Alex Harding, a medical doctor conducting his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It could be a while until the FDA feels comfortable enough to approve any of these kinds of [A.I.] tools for routine use in the clinic.”

Look out for Google, Amazon

GE’s efforts to develop deep learning apps in healthcare are part of its broader attempt to transform from being a traditional industrial manufacturer to a maker of software-enabled devices and equipment. “This is all about our digital strategy,” Koontz says.

That digital push was a core piece of outgoing GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s agenda, and it will continue—if not pick up more steam—under his successor, John Flannery, who will take the reins in August. Flannery, like Immelt, ran GE’s healthcare business before getting tapped to lead the whole corporation.

“I think digital will be huge in” GE Healthcare, Flannery said during a company town hall discussion on June 12, the day his appointment was announced. “I’m really confident about the future of the business, the industry, [and] how it fits in GE. … I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can be with that business.”

A GE Healthcare MRI machine. Image provided courtesy of GE Healthcare. ©General Electric Company.

GE Healthcare is a leading seller of medical devices such as X-ray machines, patient monitoring equipment, and ultrasound systems. Now, the idea is to make the existing software that runs those machines more sophisticated. Part of the reason for collaborating with healthcare organizations like Partners is that GE needs doctors to help train the algorithms by confirming, for example, which lung scans show cancerous tumors and which don’t, Koontz says.

“What we’re trying to do is enhance the value of our devices,” Koontz says. “The use of A.I. and those types of smart applications is just a logical next step for us.”

It’s also a matter of survival, says Rob McCray, the president and CEO of the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance in San Diego.

“Medical products that aren’t wrapped in software, or aren’t software themselves, are just going away,” says McCray, whose trade organization works to advance the adoption of digital technologies in healthcare. “To be competitive, GE has to move in this direction.”

The fact that GE Healthcare’s machines are already being widely used by hospitals worldwide gives it an advantage over competitors in healthcare A.I. software—including IBM—that don’t sell medical devices, according to Koontz and others. “They have a real opportunity,” says John Brownstein, Boston Children’s Hospital’s chief innovation officer and a Harvard Medical School professor.

There will be other players, too, of course. McCray says GE and IBM might be successful in this emerging sector, but he argues that the biggest innovations in healthcare-related A.I. could come from West Coast tech giants. “Companies like Google and Amazon, maybe Apple, you have to think of in the first tier of disruptors who come in with a fresh look,” he says.

Google’s healthcare A.I. efforts include the work of its subsidiary DeepMind, which is best known for its AlphaGo software, but also has a healthcare-focused business.

Amazon, meanwhile, hasn’t made a significant push into healthcare—yet. But outside developers have started creating healthcare apps for the company’s voice-controlled speaker devices powered by Amazon’s virtual agent, Alexa. Boston Children’s Hospital created the first Alexa healthcare “skill” last year, a reference tool for parents to gather information about common child maladies.

Alexa is already starting to make its way into hospitals and doctor’s offices, too.

“The notion that’s been in healthcare, since we had the first electronic health record, is that the best user interface for clinicians would be voice,” McCray says. “I’m comfortable that Amazon, with its depth of knowledge in language and natural language processing and A.I., is going to be a more significant player in healthcare as we know it.”

Brownstein, of Boston Children’s Hospital, thinks there’s a lot of room for a mix of companies applying A.I. to different areas of healthcare.

“There’s plenty of ground to cover,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a winner-take-all scenario.”

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