Google DeepMind to Use AI to Detect Early Signs of Sight Loss

Google DeepMind has begun a project with Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to use AI to tackle blindness. Karen BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Google DeepMind, the British artificial intelligence research arm of Google, will collaborate with Britain's National Health Service (NHS) to tackle sight loss in humans.

A retina-scanning system that will be able to detect the early signs of eye disease will be developed in partnership with with Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. More than 2 million people in the U.K. experience varying degrees of sight loss.

About a million anonymized scans taken from patients who attended Moorfields between January 1, 2007 and February 29 this year will be used for analysis by Google's Artifical Intelligence (Al) computer. Scientists are hopeful that they will be able to recognize conditions such as macular degeneration, a gradual deterioration of the light-sensitive tissue lining at the back of the eye, and diabetic retinopathy, when high blood sugar levels damage the retina over time. Early treatment can be critical in both conditions.

"There's so much at stake, particularly with diabetic retinopathy. If you have diabetes, you're 25 times more likely to go blind. If we can detect this, and get in there as early as possible, then 98 percent of the most severe visual loss might be prevented," DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman said.

DeepMind's partnership with the NHS on this project is not the first of its kind. In February, the company worked alongside the the Royal Free Hospital in London to develop Streams, a smartphone app that monitors kidney function. At the time, DeepMind faced criticism from privacy groups for accessing an estimated 1.6 million patient records without having obtained sufficient consent to do so.

Suleyman said that all the personal data used in the development of the retina-scanning machine will be destroyed after five years: "In this work, we know that we're held to the highest level of scrutiny. DeepMind operates autonomously from Google, and we've been clear from the outset that at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services."