Prime minister sets out cancer challenge for data and AI

Mission to use technology for much earlier diagnosis is also aimed at promoting new industry around AI in healthcare

The Government has set out an ambition for data and artificial intelligence to help diagnose cancer at a much earlier stage for at least 50,000 people per year within the next 15 years.

Theresa MayPrime Minister Theresa May (pictured) outlined this as a step in the AI and Data Grand Challenge – one of four in the Government’s Industrial Strategy – in a speech yesterday on national ambitions in science and technology.

It had already identified diagnosing medical conditions as the first challenge for the technology, and May’s speech has now set the more specific target for cancer.

She said that combined with treatment from the NHS it could mean that 22,000 fewer people will die within five years of their diagnosis compared to today.

“We will work with industry and the medical research community to announce specific ambitions in a range of other disease areas over the coming weeks and months,” she said.

“Achieving this mission will not only save thousands of lives. It will incubate a whole new industry around AI in healthcare, creating high skilled science jobs across the country, drawing on existing centres of excellence in places like Edinburgh, Oxford and Leeds, and helping to grow new ones.

Everyday significance

In response to the announcement, IT industry association techUK said it should show the potential relevance of the technology to people’s lives.

Its deputy chief executive officer Antony Walker said: “Today’s speech helps to show just how significant this tech can be if it can be embraced by the public sector. We know that AI has the potential to increase early diagnosis and reduce staffing pressures in the NHS, for example.

"The plan set out by the prime minister today demonstrates a Government commitment to emerging technologies that we are proud to support.”

He added, however, that new technologies have to be supported by the right people and skills and there is a need to ensure the country is open to bringing in people who can support the efforts.

Existing limitations

There was also a warning that it would not be easy from Panos Constantinides, associate professor of digital innovation at the Warwick Business School.

“Despite all the hype, no AI system is currently able to eradicate cancer,” he said. “The example with the most cited challenges is IBM’s Watson for Oncology.

“The key challenge is learning. Granted, all the big tech companies have access to huge amounts of data - the key ingredient for an AI algorithm to learn and improve itself, so it can predict, diagnose and treat cancer.

"However, all this data is disconnected and unclassified, making it extremely hard to develop an algorithm for such a complex entity as cancerous cells.”

He added that it would need more collaboration across disciplines to “charter through unchartered data grounds”.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0