The Prime Minister is planning to revolutionise NHS services through the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
During a speech in Macclesfield this week, Theresa May challenged health charities, the NHS, and the AI sector to pool data in order to transform the diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases.
Coming just weeks after it was revealed that a computer error resulted in hundreds of women failing to receive an invitation for NHS breast cancer screening; is hoped the move will prevent more than 20,000 cancer-related deaths each year by 2033.
The development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher 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 armoury in the fight against disease
Under her plans, medical records, along with information about patients’ habits and genetics, will be cross referenced with national data to spot those at risk of cancer.
May also announced another target to ensure that every person has five more years of living healthily, independently and actively by 2035.
She said: “The development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher 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 armoury in the fight against disease.
“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 centres of excellence in places like Edinburgh, Oxford and Leeds – and helping to grow new ones.”
The announcement has been welcomed by cancer support charities, which have described the move as ‘pioneering’.
Technology firms are also throwing their weight behind the announcement.
Chris Feltham, technical industry specialist at Intel, said: “Intel believes that AI has the potential to transform healthcare for patients and practitioners alike, bringing huge improvements to accuracy, cost effectiveness and speed of diagnoses across a wide range of illnesses including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and many others.”
The company has a long history of partnering with healthcare institutions on AI, including working with University of Warwick, the Alan Turing Institute, and University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust to apply AI to improve recognition of cancerous cells in tissue samples.
Feltham said: “We are excited about any initiative which can help accelerate broad adoption and accessibility of solutions like these in the UK.”
Mark Bridger, vice president of OpenText, added: “Artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies have the potential to completely transform healthcare services.
“While sci-fi films can distort the impact of AI technology, it’s time to stop viewing AI as an existential threat to our livelihoods and our health.
“The true value of AI will be found in it working alongside humans to ease the pressure across the healthcare system as well as making our lives easier.
“By implementing AI when tapping into the vast volumes of data available to them, healthcare organisations can gain access to real-time information and sophisticated insights – empowering them to improve decision-making and deliver services that really do meet the needs and wants of UK citizens.”
Dr Panos Constantinides of Warwick Business School researches AI in healthcare and is co-director of the Artificial Intelligence Innovation Network.
He warned that more work would need to be done before AI could really help to meet the cancer challenge.
He said: “Many companies such as Microsoft, Google, IBM, Amazon, and Facebook have invested great resources to develop AI algorithms that would help clinicians predict, diagnose, and treat different types of cancer. >
“And there have been many success stories, including alerts of patients’ deteriorating condition, identifying skin cancer, and predicting cancer development and cells and proposing appropriate treatment.
AI has the potential to improve almost every aspect of the cancer discovery process: to make detection earlier and more-decisive, and treatments more effective, with fewer side-effect and lower rates of remission
"However, despite all the hype, no AI system is currently able to eradicate cancer. The example with the most-cited challenges is IBM’s Watson for Oncology. The key challenge is learning.
“Granted, all the big tech companies have access to huge amounts of data, the key ingredient for an AI algorithm to learn and improve itself, so it can predict, diagnose and treat cancer.
"But all this data is disconnected and unclassified, making it extremely hard to develop an algorithm for such a complex entity as cancerous cells.
He added: "The future is certainly bright, and with the addition of wearables, biogenetics, and robotic implant technologies we are definitely getting closer to winning the fight against cancer.
“However, we need more collaborative efforts across disciplines to charter through unchartered data grounds, establish connections between them, and begin to work with AI algorithms to speed both human and machine learning."
And Professor Ian McLoughlin from the School of Computing Data Science Research Group at the University of Kent, told BBH: “AI has the potential to improve almost every aspect of the cancer discovery process: to make detection earlier and more-decisive, and treatments more effective, with fewer side-effect and lower rates of remission.
While sci-fi films can distort the impact of AI technology, it’s time to stop viewing AI as an existential threat to our livelihoods and our health
“Big data – the key underpinning technology for AI – means using thousands or millions of data points to enable artificial learning systems to explore and deduce relationships between cause and effect.
“By studying large amounts of data from the population as a whole, or from target groups, or even large amounts of data from a single person over time, these systems can build an understanding of individuals and groups.
“An AI system can get to know you from your data, and, most importantly, will get to know how you are changing.
“Disease markers sometimes take months or years to become visible to the naked eye, but AI-based monitoring can identify fine-grained and correlated changed in an individuals' daily life patterns.
“However, these tools are no substitute for the skill, experience and dedication of a good GP – at least not within the near future – but could become crucial in advising your local family doctor.
After all, AI can know you better, observe you more closely, track you more frequently, direct your treatment more effectively, and monitor your outcome more objectively than any human.”