Babylon is racing against Google & Amazon to build an AI doctor

By Oliver Smith 29 November 2016
Dr Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of Babylon Health.

Dr Ali Parsa is building a machine that will diagnose better than a doctor.

It’s the holy grail of medicine. A machine that can diagnose and treat patients, at a fraction of the cost of a human doctor.

If Dr Ali Parsa has things his way within half a decade he could, if not eliminate, then at least dramatically change the medical profession.

“We’re getting into a territory where our competition is the likes of Google, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple, even Facebook,” Parsa told The Memo.

Read more: How To Boss It Like Dr Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of Babylon Health

Until now his business, Babylon Health, has focused on building one of the most successful apps for video consultations with real life doctors.

In Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world, more than 100,000 citizens have signed up to Babylon as part of a subsidised government scheme to increase the reach of the country’s health services.

In the UK four NHS GP surgeries have adopted Babylon as a free pilot to reduce waiting lists at peak times, these surgeries have seen 20% of their patients join Babylon.

And in the UK businesses like Twitter, TalkTalk and Travis Perkins, as well as individuals, have been signing up to the private service that lets you see a GP and receive digital prescriptions for medications.

Read more: Doctor in your pocket? Babylon replaces your GP with an app

But now Parsa’s app is taking another huge step forwards.

The AI doctor will see you now

“What we now want to do is create an artificially intelligent doctor,” said Parsa.

The first fruits of this work can already be seen in Babylon’s app, which was recently updated to begin ‘triaging’ patients.

Triaging is basically what receptionists or nurses might do over the phone or in person at your local GP, listening to your symptoms and deciding whether you should just pick up some paracetamol from a pharmacy, or how urgently you should see a doctor.

All the information collected during triage is typically handed over to a doctor to help them achieve a medical diagnosis more quickly and accurately, and today Babylon is doing this all via an app.

“It’s something that a few years ago people would have said was impossible to get a machine to do, now we’re doing it with thousands of patients every single day,” said Parsa.

But Babylon’s next step is even greater, because Parsa wants the artificial intelligence to begin diagnosing and eventually creating prescriptions for patients, without the help of a human being.

Digital diagnosis

In the next few months Parsa says Babylon’s system will start using this triage information to determine what condition you might have, and passing this analysis over to the human doctor that you see.

“A traditional doctor usually has 10 minutes to ask you a couple of questions. A machine can look across your entire history and every place you’ve been, every kind of weather you’ve endured, it can bring billions of factors into play to make its decision. No human can come even close to that,” he says.

“In two or three years, realistically I can’t see how a human being can diagnose better than a machine.”

The future of health

After Babylon’s AI system nails diagnosis, Parsa says there’s nothing holding them back from writing prescriptions based purely on the machines data… apart from the law that is.

“At the moment it is not legal for a machine to give a prescription, it has to be a human.”

But that will change, he says.

“It’s just like the law for self-driving cars, it’s always reactionary, laws never are proactive. You need to demonstrate that this works for a long enough time for politicians and others to say ‘yea that makes sense, we should change that’.”

How long it will take for the law to change is anyone’s guess but, if Parsa has his way, it’ll be years, not decades.