Artificial intelligence devices or products, known popularly as AI, imitate intelligent behavior or mimic human learning and reasoning. In its more basic forms, artificial intelligence has been used in the healthcare field to perform tasks like managing medical records and medication.
Artificial intelligence has the capacity to make a real difference in the lives of patients and physicians, and cut the costs of healthcare. Already, the use of computers to analyze data is slashing the time it takes healthcare providers to complete routine tasks. It can also facilitate faster, more effective, and more economical drug discovery. For radiologists, who already work with digitized images and computer software, the transition to AI-based tools improves efficiency and provides more accurate diagnosis and treatment. Indeed, studies show that artificial intelligence, while costly to implement, is increasingly effective. Used properly, it has the potential to improve medical treatment outcomes by around 40% and reduce healthcare costs by up to 50%, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan.
The technologies powering AI are so cutting edge—and developing so fast—that regulators around the globe are scrambling to keep up. Only a smattering of new AI-powered products in the pipeline have been approved by the FDA or other global regulators.
The AI movement is already well underway in the United States, and Asia’s major economies are making advancements in developing and implementing the technologies as well. The race to apply artificial intelligence to medical treatment is rapidly accelerating in China and Japan. Asian government agencies and private companies are moving as fast as they can to develop thinking computer systems for use by physicians and patients.
Chinese Government and Firms Lead the Way
China is seeking to become the world leader in AI innovation. In July 2017, China’s State Council laid out a plan to develop Chinese domestic AI technologies in all industries. Its goals include reaching parity with the United States in the field by 2020, achieving major breakthroughs by 2025, and becoming “the world’s primary AI innovation center” by 2030, as said by Inc. Magazine. With respect to medical applications for AI, a key Chinese advantage is that the less mature healthcare system allows the adoption of new technologies without the burden of old infrastructures often found in the West.
Since the plan was announced, Chinese firms have ramped up their development of AI-based healthcare products. Tencent, a vast Chinese multinational investment holding conglomerate based in Shenzhen, China, is developing its own AI-assisted medical product, and is investing in other AI startups in China and abroad.
Tencent’s imaging product, which uses artificial intelligence to screen for esophageal cancer, was released in August 2017. Still in the testing phase, it is awaiting approval by China’s National Drug Administration (CNDA). Tencent says the product is able to detect early esophageal cancer with 90% accuracy and will help doctors provide more efficient treatment. While esophageal cancer is considered rare in the United States, the number of patients in China with the disease is increasing rapidly. Of the about 500,000 new cases of esophageal cancer reported around the world every year, more than half are in China, according to statistics from the Global Cancer Observatory’s GLOBOCAN database. Tencent is also hoping to develop the product to support early screening for other diseases, including lung cancer, breast cancer, and diabetes.
Last October, Tencent also led a $15 million Series A+ funding of Voxelcloud, an AI startup based in Los Angeles, California. Voxelcloud has two products that screen computed tomography (CT) scans for lung cancer and retina disease. The company is currently partnering with more than 100 medical centers in China and conducting clinical trials there, aiming for CNDA approval.
Smaller Chinese Startups are Getting in on the AI Action
As China makes it easier for firms to access healthcare data, AI startups are developing algorithms to use the information in ways unimaginable a few years ago. And funding is starting to come their way. Of all global investor funding in AI in 2017, 48% went to China-based AI startups, more than to those in the United States. And Chinese scientists sought 641 AI-related patents last year, nearly five times the number of their American counterparts.
Huiying Medical Technology Co., Ltd., a startup based in Beijing, has rapidly expanded since its founding in 2015. It has partnerships with more than 700 hospitals in China for research and development and clinical trials of its AI-solution imaging screening product, which the firm says can detect tumors with over 90% accuracy and increase physician efficiency by 40%. According to the company, the product is the only seamless intelligent imaging cloud platform in China, with a single server that can manage 300 user requests per second. Huiying has also established strategic partnerships with Intel, China Telecom, and China Unicom for the development of medtech AI technologies. The company is awaiting CNDA approval of the product.
Infervision, another Beijing-based medical image analysis AI startup, is also aiming for CNDA approval of its AI products. To date, Infervision has secured $75 million in funding, more than any other AI startup in the world, to develop its AI image recognition platform. The platform, first released for testing in May 2017, examines CT scans and X-rays to detect early signs of lung cancer. In November of last year, Infervision also launched a Head ST Augmented Screening platform designed to rapidly detect stroke and evaluate the brain damage caused by it. Infervision is partnering with GE Healthcare, Cisco, Nvidia, and 20 tier-A hospitals in China to refine its medical diagnosis AI technology.
Japanese Companies Also Developing AI Capabilities
While China is positioning itself to take advantage of the AI technology developments, Japan is interested in making progress in the field as well. In April 2016, the Japanese government launched the Artificial Intelligence Technology Strategy Council, charged with developing a strategy to commercialize AI. But since then, there has been little else in the way of government investment.
This has not stopped Japanese companies from moving forward with the technology for medical use. Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd., a subsidiary of Fujitsu Limited based in Kawasaki, is developing an AI medtech product designed to shorten diagnosis times and improve accuracy of CT scans. The product, “Deep Tensor,” assesses the difference between a patient’s CT image and reconstructed images. Using more than 10 million medical documents and academic papers in its database, plus the images, Deep Tensor determines the patient’s diagnosis. According to Fujitsu, the technology is designed to detect small lesions that doctors may miss. In December 2017 Fujitsu Limited announced that it is collaborating with Microsoft in developing AI technology, including Fujitsu’s AI medtech product.
Separately, Kyocera Corp., a Kyoto-based electronics maker, is developing an AI system that analyzes digital images of a patient’s skin to detect skin cancer. The company is planning to commercialize this system by 2020.
Artificial intelligence is poised to shift the paradigms of medical technology, particularly in the fields of screening and diagnosis. China is the first among major Asian economies to recognize this, but others are following suit. Medtech firms are ready to take advantage.