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AI for Social Good in the Asia Pacific

December 13th, 2018

More than 400 million people in the world have diabetes. A third of them have diabetic retinopathy, a complication that can cause permanent blindness. The good news is that this blindness can be prevented if diabetic retinopathy is detected early. The not-so-good news—the illness is often going undetected because people don’t always get screenings. In major part, this is due to limited access to eye care specialists and staff capable of screening for the disease. In Thailand, for example, there are only about 1,400 eye doctors for approximately five million diabetics.

This is a problem that AI can help us solve. A few years ago, we worked with eye specialists in India and the U.S. on an AI system to help doctors analyze images of the back of the eye for signs of diabetic retinopathy. The results were promising. Our AI model now detects diabetic retinopathy with a level of accuracy on par with human retinal specialists. This means doctors and staff can use this assistive technology to screen more patients in less time, sparing people from blindness through a more timely diagnosis. Deploying this technology in underserved communities that don’t have enough eye specialists could be life-changing for many.

We should work to make the benefits of AI available to everyone. Besides rolling out this diabetic retinopathy initiative in clinics in India with our partner Verily, we’ve also been conducting research in Thailand over the past few months. At the AI for Social Good Summit in Bangkok hosted by Google and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) today, we announced a partnership with the Rajavithi Hospital, which is operated by the Ministry of Public Health in Thailand, kicking off a forward looking research pilot using AI to detect diabetic retinopathy in Thailand.

AI’s potential for social good extends to areas beyond healthcare. For several years, we’ve applied Google AI research and engineering to projects in Asia Pacific with positive societal impact, including stopping illegal fishing in Indonesia, forecasting floods in India, and conserving native bird species in New Zealand. We want to support more Asia Pacific organizations in using AI to help society. And we know from experience that when we involve everyone—governments, non-profit organizations, universities and businesses—better ideas emerge.

To gather more of these ideas, we recently launched the Google AI Impact Challenge. Selected organizations who apply to the challenge will receive support from Google’s AI experts and Google.org grant funding from a $25 million pool.

To ensure that all sectors contribute to the responsible development of AI in Asia Pacific, we’re supporting the creation of an Asia Pacific AI for Social Good Research Network with a grant. This network will bring together leading academics from the Association of Pacific Rim Universities to produce research on AI for social good, as well as governance frameworks, to guide the responsible development of AI. The network will also be a forum for researchers to discuss these issues with government, civil society and the private sector.  

Google has long been committed to the responsible development of AI. These principles guide our decisions on what types of features to build and research to pursue. As one example, facial recognition technology has benefits in areas like new assistive technologies and tools to help find missing persons, with more promising applications on the horizon. However, like many technologies with multiple uses, facial recognition merits careful consideration to ensure its use is aligned with our principles and values, and avoids abuse and harmful outcomes. We continue to work with many organizations to identify and address these challenges, and unlike some other companies, Google Cloud has chosen not to offer general-purpose facial recognition APIs before working through important technology and policy questions.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that AI is developed responsibly for social good. We hope that these partnerships will help us achieve that in Asia Pacific.