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Is Babylon’s AI Chatbot the Future of Healthcare?

Nobody likes going to the doctor. And just about everyone is addicted to chatting and texting on his or her smart phone. So it was probably only a matter of time before a company made it possible to get medical advice—even a diagnosis—from a smartphone app through a very sophisticated chat feature. London-based Babylon Health raised $60 million in a Series B last month to continue development of its AI chatbot.

Babylon AI Chatbot

Sarah has a headache

That brought total funding to the company to $85 million in just 16 months, with a valuation somewhere between $200 and $250 million. What exactly do they plan to do with all that cash? According to the company’s rather high-minded (if laudable) mission statement: Babylon proposes to “build the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence platform in healthcare, to support medical diagnosis and predict personalized health outcomes globally”.

IBM Watson: the 800-pound AI healthcare gorilla

Some of you might be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what IBM’s famous AI Watson is already doing. As you probably know, Watson didn’t retire after becoming grand champion in Jeopardy. IBM has sold and integrated Watson into a number of industry platforms, none more aggressively than healthcare. Watson is helping doctors and medical researchers in everything from treating cancer to discovering new drugs. In oncology, Watson draws upon “600,000 medical evidence reports, 1.5 million patient records and clinical trials, and two million pages of text from medical journals to help doctors develop treatment plans” tailored based on a patient’s symptoms, genetics and history.

Watson is also working with drug company Pfizer on studying how the body’s immune system can be used to help fight cancer, according to an article in Motley Fool. In that scenario, Watson has also done its homework, looking at 25 million Medline abstracts, over one million medical journal articles, data from four million patients, and every drug patient since 1861. The idea is to help scientists discover new drugs with Watson’s eye for finding patterns in large amounts of data.

If Watson is doing all that, then why do we even need Babylon’s AI chatbot? Even for today’s supercomputers, healthcare is a huge field, with thousands of diseases. The United States alone spent $3 trillion in 2014 nationwide on healthcare. As we covered previously, there are plenty of startups out there using big data just like Watson in drug discovery. And Babylon is certainly not the only company developing an AI chatbot for healthcare. TechCrunch reported that just days before Babylon announced its $60 million Series B, another European startup pushing an AI chatbot for healthcare called Ada launched its service.

An AI Chatbot and So Much More

There are certainly some reasons to like what Babylon and others are doing in the space of AI chatbots. We’ve started to change our tune about the AI chatbot as more and more companies seem to be providing real value rather than a clever marketing ploy. And you certainly have to like the fact that DeepMind founders Demis Hassabis and Mustafa Suleyman are investors and advisors to Babylon, which has about 170 employees, including about 100 AI scientists. DeepMind was another British AI startup that has helped to transform Google since it came into the fold in 2014.

Babylon started out as a telemedicine app, providing live chat and video consultations with medical professionals, saving Londoners (and the National Health Service) the cost and time to visit a doctor in person. What the app does currently is what Babylon calls its “triage” function where patients use the app to get medical advice—a more sophisticated version of WebMD in a way—rather than call the NHS hotline for help. AI chatbot has reportedly been downloaded more than a million times. In about 90 seconds it can offer a course of action, including scheduling a video call appointment with a flesh-and-blood doctor. Normally phone calls to the NHS hotline can take up to 15 minutes, costing the government about £15 (about $20). Medical consultations through Babylon can cost as little as £5 per month based on a subscription. Another interesting feature is the ability to track things with the app like exercise, eating habits, and sleeping habits:

Remember back when you could lie to your doctor about how much you’ve been exercising?

The new version of the app, expected out later this year, will be able to analyze a patient’s symptoms against a database of diseases, as well as his or her medical history. The AI chatbot can even make a diagnosis—though the UK government still has to approve that feature. If that happens, Babylon’s AI chatbot would be the first board-certified (sort of) machine doctor in the world. Of course, no one is suggesting an AI chatbot will replace your doctor, this is the sort of tool that may help cut down on medical errors—the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

AI Mobile Healthcare in the Future

The Financial Times’ technology correspondent Madhumita Murgia wrote an excellent analysis of digital mobile healthcare in the future, featuring Babylon Health. This is usually the part of the article where we offer you some insightful thoughts about where this is all going, but much to our chagrin, Murgia has done a better job:

The digital upheaval is already under way: last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved 36 connected health apps and devices, from mobile lung-function monitors to blood-glucose tests, which provide medical advice to consumers.

This year, we will see physicians experiment with smartphones to conduct traditional examinations of your organs, perform ultrasound scans, measure vitals such as heart rhythm, blood pressure and glucose levels, and execute an array of lab tests from liver and kidney function to infection diagnoses and even DNA sequencing. All of this via a complement of miniature attachments that simply plug into your phone.

In this smartphone-enabled medical system, you—the patient—will be the custodian of your own health. Your phone will be a hub of your medical records, including personal health history, diet and fitness.

We will add that what is perhaps most exciting about this smartphone-enabled medical system, as Murgia calls it, is that healthcare will no longer be available to the rich. This isn’t just about empowering First World people who have eaten too many fried-butter-on-a-stick snacks at the local state fair. Anyone in the world can plug into the future of healthcare. There is an app for that—and it costs almost next to nothing. Talk about a major disruptive technology.

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