If you've ever tried to diagnose yourself using websites and other online resources, at some point, you've probably also fallen into a digital rabbit hole so deep and so terrifying that you might have felt compelled to book the earliest appointment with your doctor.
Baidu, the company behind China's largest search engine, wants to do away with that terror in real-time. Starting today, it's offering a new, free smartphone app (iOS and Android) that uses artificial intelligence to try and discern whether you're actually sick or not. If so, it can quickly connect you with a doctor. While it could have a huge impact in China, experts are less certain that the app would catch on in the US, where Baidu eventually plans to launch an English-language version.
Baidu's new AI tool, called Melody the Medical Assistant, is designed to augment the existing Baidu Doctor app, launched last year, which gives patients preliminary information about medical conditions and connects them to a doctor.
A patient would log into Baidu Doctor on her smartphone or tablet. Then, the Melody bot prompts the patient to provide some basic information about her age and sex in the form of a text conversation, and asks an average of 10 questions about her symptoms. "The bot will ask additional questions to clarify symptoms, along with others that the patient hasn't disclosed yet, the [medical] history, living habits, and gives advice," Wei Fan, the senior director of Baidu Big Data Lab, told Motherboard over the phone.
The tool offers a few advantages over traditional online medical tools like WebMD, Fan said. It can incorporate symptoms from different parts of the body, and nuances within those symptoms, like their frequency or severity.
"The bot will ask additional questions to clarify symptoms, along with others that the patient hasn't disclosed yet..."
The AI was trained on medical textbooks and tested with doctors and medical students in China. It can also ask follow-up questions about symptoms that the patient might not have thought were relevant—just like a human medical assistant, Fan said.
If the patient then chooses to use the app to connect with a doctor, she can opt to send information directly to the physician. In the doctor's hands, the AI will even suggest tests and a preliminary guess for which condition the patient could have, before a patient sets foot in a clinic (the doctor is still responsible for all decisions regarding diagnoses and treatment).
Right now, Baidu is just starting to roll out the app—the company has gotten 150 doctors in China to agree to use it, Fan said.
But if it were adopted more broadly, the AI medical assistant could make doctors more efficient, he added. In 2011, China has only about 1.5 physicians for every 1,000 people, according to the World Bank (the US has about 2.5); it's not uncommon to wait in line for hours just to see one. So it makes sense that doctors would want to spend their time on patients who most need their attention. Patients, too, would benefit from greater efficiency in medicine—"For many conditions it's really convenient for a patient to get a semi-real time response [from a doctor]," Fan said.
There's reason to think this might work in China: Baidu Doctor, the company's older app that connects doctors and patients, offers access to 600,000 doctors in the country. The high demand for doctors makes Internet-based medicine, such as telemedicine, seem poised to expand rapidly. Baidu Doctor offers patients information about doctors, including their credentials, to prevent them from seeing unlicensed doctors taking advantage of the high demand (quacks can still advertise, including on Baidu's search engine).
But some experts are skeptical that the tool would be quite as useful in the US, where Baidu eventually plans to bring an English language version.
First, there are technical challenges to bringing a natural language app into another language. The app consists of two overlapping neural networks—one that links natural language to medical terminology, and another that combines those technical symptoms to make a diagnosis—that are very specific to a particular language. Fan admitted that it would take "a lot of effort" to make the app in English; Baidu already has a demo version but would need to work with medical professionals in English-speaking countries like the US for it to be comfortable for patients to use, Fan said.
American patients might be tempted to get real-time answers to their late-night health worries, it's less clear if doctors would use the app at all. While American doctors want to be more efficient by only treating sick patients, the structure of the healthcare system doesn't incentivize them to see more patients, nor those who need care most, said Kris Hauser, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University who studies robot-assisted medicine.
"Doctors are very well respected in our society and you have to make these systems loved by doctors."
It's hard to convince healthcare professionals to adopt new technology (it took decades and billions in government incentives for electronic health records to become the standard). Doctors will only use something that saves them time and is convenient and intuitive to use, said Peter Szolovits, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT.
"Doctors are very well respected in our society and you have to make these systems loved by doctors," Hauser said. "Once you pass that hurdle, I think you'll start to see an AI medical assistant used more widely. But it's a high bar."
It's not yet clear if Baidu's app would fit the bill when it eventually does come to the US. But Baidu is hardly the only company working to bring artificial intelligence to healthcare. IBM's Watson has helped with cancer diagnosis, Google's DeepMind is assessing eye disease; leaner startups are designing new ways to connect doctors and patients, or designing AI medical assistants of their own.
AI has been making its way little by little into healthcare through projects like these, but so far no one company has come to dominate this space. Both Hauser and Szolovits expect AI to play a larger role in the field, and the opportunity there is huge. If the company's AI works as well as the company claims and can do so in the US, Baidu stands a chance at being the ones to strike virtual gold.
Correction: This story originally erroneously stated that the Baidu Doctor app was used by 600,000 people, when in fact, it offers access to 600,000 doctors. We've updated the story accordingly and regret the error.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.