Tech giants shift investment to test new AI markets

Jeff Rowe
As patients increasingly explore intersection between technology and healthcare, some very familiar tech players are trying to figure out the best way to help them.

One way you know a developing market is still, well, developing is by keeping an eye on how the giants step in and out of the market – sometimes investing more, sometimes less – always with an eye toward anticipating where the market is going. 

And the AI in healthcare market is certainly no exception.

For example, IBM recently pulled back on some of its AI investment, while Alphabet, the parent company to Google, is reportedly ramping up efforts to capitalize on the AI’s rapidly expanding footprint.

IBM’s move involves discontinuing the development and sales of its Watson for Drug Discovery product due to poor financial performance.  

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, “this usage of IBM's Watson artificial intelligence software was introduced in 2014, with the aim of assisting pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs. Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer were among the firms that established partnerships with the research tool. Though IBM will no longer market or advance Watson for Drug Discovery, it will continue to serve pharmaceutical companies already using the software.”

Meanwhile, Google and some of its sister companies, are making a huge investment in AI.

"The fundamental underlying technologies of machine learning and artificial intelligence are applicable to all manner of tasks," said Greg Corrado, a neuroscientist at Google. That's true, he said, "whether those are tasks in your daily life, like getting directions or sorting through email, or the kinds of tasks that doctors, nurses, clinicians and patients face every day.”

Interestingly, this isn’t Google’s first foray into healthcare, demonstrating perhaps its belief in the old adage, “If at first you do not succeed . . .”

A few years back, the company backed off after a venture called Google Health failed to take root, but now, Google has rebooted its efforts.

Hundreds of employees are reportedly working on health-related projects, often partnering with other companies and academics, with the company’s ongoing investment likely in the billions of dollars.

According to NPR, one of the prime engines to the Google effort is a sister company called Verily. “Among its projects is software that can diagnose a common cause of blindness called diabetic retinopathy and that is currently in use in India. Verily is also working on tools to monitor blood sugar in people with diabetes, as well as surgical robots that learn from each operation.”

Said cardiologist Jessica Mega, Verily's chief medical and scientific officer, "In each of these cases, you can use new technologies and new tools to solve a problem that's right in front of you. In the case of surgical robotics, this idea of learning from one surgery to another becomes really important, because we should be constantly getting better.”

To many observers, for all the challenges of forging a new path into healthcare, Google has a potentially enormous advantage in all the data it collects from its billions of users.

As Greg Corrado sees the challenge, "A big part of the way that research and development should work in this space is by having kind of a long-term portfolio of technologies that you percolate through the academic and scientific community and then you percolate through the clinical community.

In the end, he said, successful AI development “has to be something that is driven by the patients' desire to use their own information to better their wellness.”