Medical AI platform claims to be able to match actual doctors for health advice

UK Medical tech company Babylon Health has demonstrated an AI platform that seems to diagnose as accurately as real, live human doctors.

At an event in London the company fired a bunch of questions at its AI (which doesn’t have a name yet – how about Quincy?), derived from publicly available Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) sources including bits of the exam GPs take to become qualified. The AI got a pass mark of 81% while the average for humans is 72%. You can read the full research paper here.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that there is a shortage of over 5 million doctors globally, leaving more than half the world’s population without access to even the most basic healthcare services,” said Dr Ali Parsa, Babylon’s Founder and CEO (pictured). Even in the richest nations, primary care is becoming increasingly unaffordable and inconvenient, often with waiting times that make it not readily accessible.

“Babylon’s latest artificial intelligence capabilities show that it is possible for anyone, irrespective of their geography, wealth or circumstances, to have free access to health advice that is on-par with top-rated practicing clinicians.

“Tonight’s results clearly illustrate how AI-augmented health services can reduce the burden on healthcare systems around the world. Our mission is to put accessible and affordable health services into the hands of every person on Earth. These landmark results take humanity a significant step closer to achieving a world where no-one is denied safe and accurate health advice.”

Inevitably real GPs aren’t exactly comfortable with this sign of their impending obsolescence. The RGCP immediately retorted with a press release headed “Apps and algorithms may ‘support but will never replace’ GPs, says RCGP”. Here’s what its Vice Chair, Professor Martin Marshall, had to say on the matter.

“The potential of technology to support doctors to deliver the best possible patient care is fantastic, but at the end of the day, computers are computers, and GPs are highly-trained medical professionals: the two can’t be compared and the former may support but will never replace the latter.

“No app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does. Every day we deliver care to more than a million people across the UK, taking into account the physical, psychological and social factors that may be impacting on a patient’s health; we consider the different heath conditions a patient is living with, and medications they might be taking, when formulating a treatment plan. Much of what GPs do is based on a trusting relationship between a patient and a doctor, and research has shown GPs have a ‘gut feeling’ when they just know something is wrong with a patient.

“An app might be able to pass an automated clinical knowledge test but the answer to a clinical scenario isn’t always cut and dried, there are many factors to take into account, a great deal of risk to manage, and the emotional impact a diagnosis might have on a patient to consider. This is why the College’s MRCGP assessment, which all GPs must now pass in order to practise independently in the UK, has three elements and is designed to test not just clinical knowledge, but also the ability to make evidence-based decisions, and to deliver person-centred care through effective communication with patients and colleagues.

“It is also the case that the exam-preparation materials, used by Babylon in this research, will have been compiled for revision purposes and are not necessarily representative of the full-range of questions and standard used in the actual MRCGP exam, so to say that Babylon’s algorithm has performed better than the average MRCGP candidate is dubious.

“Babylon’s GP at Hand service uses technology in a way that some patients like. But some don’t, and the way it is being used risks undermining and damaging traditional general practice services. The College has publicly criticised GP at Hand for ‘cherry-picking’ patients, leaving traditional GP services to deal with the most complex patients, without sufficient resources to do so. We stand by this: we do not endorse Babylon, or its GP at Hand service, being used in the way that it is, in the NHS.

“Technology has the potential to transform the NHS, but it must be implemented in an equitable way, that doesn’t benefit some patients, and not others, and is not to the detriment of the general practice service as a whole.”

In essence Marshall is speaking on behalf of anyone potentially affected by the march of the AI chatbots and the increasing obsolescence of human beings. There are so many questions around this stuff beyond merely their technical accuracy, including soft skills, the unique nuances of human interaction and culpability for mistakes. But if this sort of thing provides medical assistance where it was previously unavailable it’s hard to overlook.

Nokia disposes of Withings and yet another Technologies President

Nokia has indicated that Gregory Lee’s main job was to get rid of Withings, so now that process is complete he’s moving on.

When Lee was poached from Samsung Electronics North America less than a year ago the messaging was that his consumer electronics expertise would take Nokia’s re-entry into the consumer space to the next level.

“Gregory’s passion for innovation and operational excellence, along with his proven ability to build and lead global consumer technology businesses, make him well suited to advance Nokia’s efforts in virtual reality, digital health and beyond,” said Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri at the time.

Withings, which had only been acquired the previous year, was clearly meant to be a cornerstone of this consumer tech effort, so imagine Lee’s dismay when, at the start of this year, Nokia announced it was ‘reviewing strategic alternatives’ for its digital health division. By the start of this month that process concluded flogging it back to the bloke they bought it from was the best strategic alternative, which kind of called Lee’s position into question.

“Gregory came to Nokia, made a clear-eyed assessment of our consumer business and incubation activities, and took the bold decision to refocus Nokia Technologies on licensing,” said Suri. “As part of that effort, he assessed strategic options for Digital Health, which led to the sale of that business. Given that, we have agreed that his work at Nokia is done. He leaves the company with my great appreciation and thanks.”

So the official line is that the guy they brought in to head up its consumer tech business quickly concluded Nokia shouldn’t be in the consumer tech business. OK, fair enough, but that’s a pretty strange narrative. A simpler explanation would be that, by the end of 2017, Nokia realised (once more) that it couldn’t hack it as a standalone devices player and that Lee just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nokia’s confusion about what to do with the devices IP it kept hold of when it flogged the handset division to Microsoft seems to have manifested itself in turmoil at the top of the Nokia Technology division. Ramzi Haidamus was brought in from Dolby in 2014, oversaw the brand licensing idea, but cleared off after two years, just after the acquisition of Withings, indicating he maybe disagreed with the move.

They then brought in Brad Rodrigues, but only ever named him as ‘Interim President’ of Nokia Technologies and he lasted a year or so before moving on not long after Lee came on board. Now, were told, current Nokia Chief Legal Officer Maria Varsellona has been handed this poisoned chalice, a move that makes sense if the division is reverting back to patent trolling, which seemed its most likely strategy from the start.

We all make mistakes. Nokia thought it could re-enter the devices market in a narrower, more targeted way through Withings and at the same time position itself to capitalise on consumer IoT when it starts to take off. It then had to be reminded the hard way that devices are no longer a core competence and Lee has been unfortunate to be at the helm during that process.

Nokia set to sell Withings back to its founder

Having indicated it wanted to get out of the digital health game earlier this year, Nokia is selling Withings back to the bloke it bought it from.

Éric Carreel is one of the founders of Withings and he seems to have held on to much of the cash he trousered when Nokia bought his company two years ago for €170 million. Nokia isn’t revealing how much he’s buying it back for but, since it’s been on the market for 2-3 months it seems safe to assume he bought it back at a significant discount.

Nokia isn’t saying much about this clear strategic failure, which is understandable, merely reiterating the established party line. “The planned sale is part of Nokia’s honed focus on becoming a business-to-business and licensing company,” said the announcement. In other words, we got a bit carried away with diversification but now we’ve learnt our lesson. At the time the move seemed intriguing, given Nokia’s rich devices heritage, but that ship has clearly sailed.

There seems to be a fair bit of this kind of contrition about these days. Yesterday Cisco bailed on its video services business and Ericsson has been attempting a similar move with its TV efforts for a while. The current corporate fashion seems to be to double down on your core competence, which seems sensible.

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Nokia seems to have given up on digital health

Finnish networking vendor Nokia has announced a strategic review of its Digital Health business, which is usually a sign that it wants to get rid of it.

“Digital Health’s business portfolio includes consumer and enterprise products, and it manufactures and sells an ecosystem of hybrid smart watches, scales and digital health devices to consumers and enterprise partners,” said the short announcement. “The strategic review of the Digital Health business may or may not result in any transaction or other changes.”

Essentially Nokia is admitting that its 2016 acquisition of digital health company Withings for €170 million has failed. At the time it seemed intriguing, since Nokia had recently bailed out of the devices game by flogging its phone business to Microsoft.

The charitable assumption was that the failure of Nokia smartphones was a one-off due to the sudden arrival of iOS and Android, and the people who dominated the mobile phone market for so long could replicate that performance with wearables and other digital health devices. On top of all this latent device expertise would be all manner of synergies with the networking and IP licensing side.

In hindsight this was either a fairly ill-considered attempt to diversify or a classic example of failed integration or most likely a combination of the two. There is usually very little overlap between the people who conduct M&A and those in charge of integrating the acquired company and, more importantly, realising all the lovely synergies that looked like such no-brainers during the acquisition due diligence.

The whole point of moving out of devices and doubling down on networks with the acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent was supposed to be to transform Nokia into a 100% B2B business. Even the Nokia consumer brand existed only in the form of licensing agreements with the likes of HMD, and even the mapping business in the form of HERE was deemed to peripheral to Nokia’s core competences.

So, again in hindsight (which as we know is always 20-20), a move back into devices, with a B2C element, ran contrary to pretty much every strategic move Nokia had made in the preceding years. No wonder, then, that the integration failed. Who were the Withings sponsors at the Nokia top table? Where was the budget to follow through on the acquisition and make Nokia a digital health market leader? How much device expertise was left after the Microsoft sale?

Today’s announcement is the culmination of a process that, in hindsight, was very much underway four months ago, when Nokia recorded a €141 million charge due to ‘the impairment of goodwill related to its digital health business.’ Essentially Nokia wrote-off the vast majority of the Withings acquisition and is now making a public show of trying to recover whatever residual value it can on behalf of its shareholders.

Microsoft will be crying crocodile tears at this M&A failure, having written down the entire $7.6 billion it paid Nokia for its handset division a few years ago (Nokia’s current market cap is only 4-5 times that amount). Compared to that the Withings misadventure is a minor one, but probably signals an end to Nokia attempts to diversify away from networking for the foreseeable future.

Nokia calls BS on VR

Nokia has decided the world of VR isn’t as big or as glamorous as some people claim, and will trim back its R&D funding for the tech at its Technologies division.

Perhaps a few of the executives got burnt a while back when 3D TVs were going to be the next big thing, but it isn’t going to happen again. That monstrosity might still be sitting in their living room, but there certainly won’t be any VR gear to accompany it. Unfortunately this does not only mean less cash, but 310 staff to be let go.

“Nokia Technologies is at a point where, with the right focus and investments, we can meaningfully grow our footprint in the digital health market, and we must seize that opportunity,” said Gregory Lee, President of Nokia Technologies. “While necessary, the changes will also affect our employees, and as a responsible company we are committed to providing the needed support to those affected.”

It is certainly a fine line to walk. There have been a few false dawns in recent years, but trying to pick them out of the euphoria is a tricky task. Nokia doesn’t want to burn cash, but at the same time these executives will be praying the VR fad does not move over into the mega trend category. It is a question of which wrong would you rather be; wrong and invest money in a failed technology, or wrong and miss out on what could be a payoff.

The ‘optimized’ budget for VR (excellent PR spin work from the Nokia team) will allow for increased investments in the digital health arena. Last year, Nokia announced it would be acquiring health and fitness focused gadget maker Withings for €170 million, which will get the lion’s share of the attention from here onwards.

We’re still not convinced the VR world is going to be anything more than a niche, but your correspondent isn’t going to lose his job if he is wrong. That said, choosing to reinvest the money saved in another faddy area is a bold call. Wearable devices have been around for a while, but the limited success to date has been in the fitness trackers. They are simple and cheap. We haven’t really seen as significant breakthroughs for more health orientated devices, but apparently the Nokia team has a bit of a hunch.

Only time will tell whether this is the right decision, but we have a feeling ditching the VR side of things was the right call. Digital health however…