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Google to focus DeepMind's AI on eye diseases

A partnership with a major London eye hospital will see the artificial intelligence tech put to work in a medical setting for the second time.

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Google has its eye on solving medical problems.

Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Fresh off a stunning victory in a nearly-impossible-to-master board game, Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence project is bringing its brainpower to the humble eye scan.

Google, which acquired British startup DeepMind in 2014, is partnering with the UK's state-run National Health Service. The mission: to create a system whereby sight-threatening conditions can be diagnosed from just a single scan of the eye, the company said Tuesday.

Working with Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, DeepMind will delve deep into identifying the signs of two specific diseases: diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration. Together, these diseases affect more than 100 million people worldwide, according to Google.

Google will investigate how DeepMind's technology can be taught to analyze scans for the two diseases --the diagnoses of which have been time-consuming efforts for eye doctors due to their complexity. The results could mean earlier diagnoses for patients and therefore earlier treatment, leading to less deterioration in eyesight down the line.

"With sight loss predicted to double by the year 2050 it is vital we explore the use of cutting-edge technology to prevent eye disease," Peng Tee Khaw, director of the National Institute for Health Research's Biomedical Research Centre in Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital, said in a statement.

DeepMind has been plugging away for years developing its cutting-edge machine learning tech, but made headlines this year when it powered the computer that beat the human world champion at the ancient game of Go. Tens of thousands of people tuned it to watch DeepMind's AlphaGo bot beat pro player Fan Hui -- not just once, but multiple times.

The potential for artificial intelligence to make a difference in tricky medical research and decision-making has been understood for some time, with IBM's Watson supercomputer leading the way. Watson was first put to work on suggesting treatments for lung cancer patients back in 2013. Given Google's interest in developing health care solutions through its biotech startup Calico Labs, the application of DeepMind's computing chops to medical problems feels like a natural progression for the company.

This is the second time that DeepMind has worked with the NHS. DeepMind has also been developing a kidney analysis tool with other London-based hospitals. There have been some concerns about Google having access to NHS patient data through the research projects, but the company says that DeepMind is forbidden from sharing data with any other parts of the company.