How Apple’s AI imaging vision may save lives

Apple's machine intelligence platforms enable future evolution in computer imaging and healthcare.

Apple, iOS, health, digital health, AI, machine intelligence, computer imaging
Apple

Apple’s focus on machine intelligence in imaging and digital health seems likely to accelerate development of innovative health solutions, grabbing iOS developers a slice of this fast-growing market segment.

A healthy opportunity

A recent Signify Research survey claims artificial intelligence (AI) in medical imaging will become a $2 billion market by 2023, pointing to the rapid evolution of various forms of analysis and detection software.

The researchers claim these technologies will “transform the diagnostic imaging industry,” with diagnostic imaging systems helping fill the international shortage of skilled radiologists.

"The interest and enthusiasm for AI in the radiologist community has notably increased over the last 12 to 18 months and the discussion has moved on from AI as a threat, to how AI will augment radiologists,” said Signify Research analyst Simon Harris.

He notes an emerging body of research that seems to show AI can improve clinical outcomes.

At present, we see computer vision and AI used in such tasks as the identification of various cancers or to guide workflow during medical procedures, as noted here. In recent weeks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved software that detects diabetic retinopathy based on images and AI.

What’s in the way?

There are several obstacles to accelerated evolution in this space.

One of the biggest is the regulatory process around medical technologies. Quite rightly, regulators are extremely concerned to ensure solutions are properly vetted, leading at least one developer of AI medical diagnostic systems to tell me that regulatory testing of his product (which is now in use in the U.S.) means he now has a room filled with various kinds of documentation.

He’s sanguine about this — he understands the need to ensure medical technologies are fit for purpose, but he sees the burden of these regulations as a limiting factor when it comes to the evolution of machine intelligence solutions for health. Regulators, meanwhile, are finding ways to reduce the burden with schemes such as the FDA’s De Novo pathway.

Healthcare IT is also resistant to purchasing solutions at this time in part because it wants to avoid the integration challenges inherent when attempting to deploy cutting-edge products from multiple companies. Harris suggests software developers in this space reach licensing agreements with existing established hardware vendors to overcome this.

How Apple can help

Apple has invested deeply in digital health research and technology.

It now provides a platform that supports health-related software development that can also work with third-party health hardware. Its focus on data privacy and security is also vitally important, given strict regulation around the sharing and protection of patient data.

Apple’s cutting-edge hardware (iPad, iPhone) is equipped with the kind of processor clout and on-board machine intelligence analysis tools it takes to drive real-world solutions, such as skin condition analysis.

What’s really important is that the company has created tools that developers in this space can use to run large-scale technology and treatment tests. ResearchKit and CareKit enable tests across multiple sites with multiple patients, even across international borders.

Apple’s decision to create a HIPAA-compliant patient records system that patients can use to gather and share data facilitates peer review, while its continued engagement with leaders in the digital health space will inevitably generate opportunities for future research.

Apple isn’t alone.

Google, Tencent, and Alibaba (among others) are all working on solutions that combine machine intelligence with computer vision. These huge investments point to critical mass in the evolution of such technologies is close, suggesting that health providers will soon be able to access a wide array of AI-powered solutions.

Watch this space

That Apple is interested in the application of its hardware and software technologies within the medical imaging sector was rendered blatantly obvious when it gave Triton Sponge an Apple Design Award at WWDC 2018. This product took years to develop and uses the camera on an iPad to measure how much blood has been collected by surgical sponges during medical procedures.

Triton Sponge CEO Siddarth Satish said there are profound opportunities within this space. He stressed that what’s game-changing about these technologies is that they can be developed to work on devices that we already use, such as iPads.

He also told me his application could work effectively on older devices, a point that could become a genuine life-line as the benefits of digital health technologies are made available to communities that currently lack access to existing tools.

Such communities can look forward to access to medical technologies they’ve never had access to in the past.

For example, U.S. company Butterfly Network has created a $2,000 iPhone accessory that turns your smartphone into the equivalent of an ultrasound machine, making this essential life-saving analysis technology much easier to deploy in new environments.

Updated August 15 2018. Inaccurately described Butterfly Network as a non-U.S. company, it is in fact a U.S. company.

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