Google’s AI Reads Retinas to Prevent Blindness in Diabetics

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Google researchers have worked with doctors to develop an AI that can automatically identify diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause blindness among adults. Using deep learning—the same breed of AI that identifies faces, animals, and objects in pictures uploaded to Google’s online services—the system detects the condition by examining retinal photos. In a recent study, it succeeded at about the same rate as human opthamologists, according to a paper published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But the idea behind this AI isn’t to replace doctors. Blindness is often preventable if diabetic retinopathy is caught early. The hope is that the technology can screen far more people for the condition than doctors could on their own, particularly in countries where healthcare is limited, says Peng. The project began, she says, when a Google researcher realized that doctors in his native India were struggling to screen all the locals that needed to be screened.

In many places, doctors are already using photos to diagnose the condition without seeing patients in person. “This is a well validated technology that can bring screening services to remote locations where diabetic retinal eye screening is less available,” says David McColloch, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington who specializes in diabetes. That could provide a convenient on-ramp for an AI that automates the process.