A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, in this file photo taken on September 17 2018. Picture: REUTERS/ALY SONG
A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, in this file photo taken on September 17 2018. Picture: REUTERS/ALY SONG

Internet giant Google says it is considering how it can use artificial intelligence (AI) to help doctors in Africa tackle some of the continent’s most pervasive diseases.

The nascent technology, sometimes portrayed in films as the enabler of intuitive robots that could destroy mankind, is expected to transform industries from healthcare to transport.

“We’re actively looking to see what we can do” in Africa, said Katherine Chou, the company’s head of product for AI in healthcare.

Chou said her team would consider launching pilot projects with Google’s new AI research centre in Ghana, though Google would first “get a better understanding” of the types of diseases it could target on the continent.

“We do have a division working on things like malaria and dengue, so there have been thoughts of how we can help there.”

According to the World Health Organization, there were about 212-million malaria cases and 429,000 deaths in 2015 – with more than 90% of those in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We will start with understanding various countries’ needs first, but we have identified a few countries that need some of the services we could be helping with already — like diabetic retinopathy,” Chou said.

Her team has been building AI models to predict the onset of diabetic retinopathy — a complication of diabetes that can cause blindness.

It has done this by training machines to identify the disease from retina images. The process, whereby ophthalmologists labelled thousands of images, revealed that doctors were often inconsistent in their diagnoses.

“We found that doctors were consistent with each other 65% of the time and they were consistent with themselves 60% of the time,” Chou said.

AI would ultimately make healthcare more accessible, would allow doctors to spend more time with patients rather than on paperwork, and would detect new types of diseases by identifying patterns that humans could not.

“Ultimately what we would like to do is use AI to make higher quality care that’s affordable and accessible and make that a norm for billions of people,” she said.

IBM is also wading into Africa’s healthcare market.

The group said earlier in 2018 it was using AI to help policymakers on the continent to come up with more effective policy interventions to tackle malaria.