UK government looks to AI to prevent disease, boost industry

By Laura Lovett
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The British government is now turning to artificial intelligence as an avenue for early cancer and chronic disease detection. This morning, Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to invest in AI technology development for the healthcare sector as part of her industrial strategy. The plans aim not only to improve healthcare but to grow the country's AI industry. 

“The UK will use data, artificial intelligence, and innovation to transform the prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment of diseases like cancer diabetes, heart diseases, and dementia by 2030,” May said at her speech on industrial strategy this morning. “Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths and the development of smart technologies to analyze great quantities of data quickly and with a great degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research, and gives us a new weapon in our armory to fight disease.”

The UK’s National Health Services has acquired a large and valuable dataset from its universal healthcare system, which has the potential to supply providers with a wealth of data, according to the . 

“My ambition is that within 15 years we’ll diagnose cancer much earlier in a least 50,000 more people a year. Combined with the great treatment and care provided by our NHS, that will mean every year 22,000 fewer people will die within five years of their diagnosis compared with today,” May said. 

May's ministry predicts that the cancer-detecting AI technology could save around 20,000 lives a year by 2033. 

The plans are aimed not only to target health priorities but also industry concerns. The AI initiative is part of a four-pronged industrial strategy that May announced this morning and include a focus on AI and data economy, clean growth, healthy aging, and the future of mobility.

In 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, in a move colloquially called “Brexit.” The British government is now grappling with concerns and questions over what that move means for its economy. 

“Achieving this mission will not only save thousands of lives, it will incubate a whole new industry around AI in healthcare creating high-skilled science jobs across the country, drawing on existing centers of excellence in places like Edinburgh, Oxford, and Leeds and helping to grow new ones,” May said. 

This isn’t the NHS’ first brush with digital healthcare. In 2016, Google DeepMind, a UK-based AI subsidiary of Google, entered partnership with the NHS to pilot two health apps, Streams and Hark. While these specific apps do not use AI, DeepMind is an AI company. The implementation has garned its share of data sharing and privacy critics

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that while DeepMind uses AI in healthcare, it does not use the technolgoy in the Streams and Hark apps. 

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