Inside DeepMind as the lines with Google blur

DeepMind, the British artificial intelligence company, shares its offices in London with its parent company Google. But Google employees cannot enter DeepMind’s area with their security passes, they are treated as any other outside visitor.

This physical barrier between the two companies reflects the promise that Google made to DeepMind when it bought it for £400m in 2014; that the AI firm would remain autonomous, shielded from commercial pressure as it focuses on a single goal, the creation of machine intelligence. 

But as the five-year anniversary of the takeover approaches, and with it the final payments to shareholders on the deal, Google is looking again at how DeepMind can prove its worth. 

Last week, the line between the companies blurred significantly when DeepMind announced that it would transfer control of its health unit to a new Google Health division in California.

David Feinberg, the former head of the US private healthcare group Geisinger, will run Google Health, drawing together and commercialising the company’s disparate experiments in everything from diagnosing cancer to managing chronic illness and equipping doctors with more technology. 

The company did not comment on whether its Calico unit, which studies ageing, and Verily, its life sciences division, would become part of Google Health.

“[Feinberg’s] expertise is on the operational side of the health payer-provider space, rather than research. His role will be to figure out a go-to-market strategy, how to deploy and sell tools to hospitals, health insurance carriers and patients,” said Nikhil Krishnan, health analyst at CBInsights, who has authored an in-depth report on Google’s healthcare business. ”

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Moving DeepMind Health to Google’s control will lead to an expansion of its flagship Streams app, which sends alerts based on test results to the mobile phones of doctors and nurses, allowing them to diagnose and respond to serious kidney injuries more quickly. 

“Google are the world leaders at app development, data integration, cloud storage, safety testing and a lot more,” said Dominic King, the former NHS surgeon who heads DeepMind Health. “They’re the best at building products that reach many millions of people. And that’s what I want for Streams.” There are no plans to move DeepMind’s London staff to California, or even into Google’s offices, the company said. 

It is not clear how much pressure Google put on DeepMind to transfer the business. Mustafa Suleyman, who runs DeepMind’s applied division, will no longer oversee the day-to-day operations of the health team, but he will sit on Google Health’s strategy board and offer advice to Mr Feinberg. Mr Suleyman also interviewed Mr Feinberg during the hiring process at Google, according to one person close to the situation. 

Meanwhile, DeepMind’s relationship with Google has been deepening. Last year, most of the company’s £54.4m in revenues, a 35 per cent rise from the year before, came from selling its software to Google. 

“Google is a critically important partner for us . . . and we’ve worked really closely with them on projects from energy efficiency in data centres to Android battery life and Google Play,” said Demis Hassabis, DeepMind chief executive. “There are more collaborations these days but that’s really a reflection of the fact that our technologies are more mature.”

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But the transfer of the health unit raises sensitive questions about the treatment of British patient data. Streams has a five-year deal with the Royal Free NHS Trust to process the data of 1.6m patients in the UK using Streams and has recently signed another deal with the Taunton and Somerset Trust. 

“DeepMind has been building a new IP infrastructure on the back-end of the NHS, which third parties could eventually plug into,” said Mr Krishnan from CBInsights. “It’s a lucrative opportunity but one of the hardest to scale properly because they’ll have to integrate into hospitals, which is a long, hard process.”

One member of the panel set up to scrutinise DeepMind’s work with the NHS, but now disbanded in the wake of the transfer, said Google needs to answer questions about whether the transparency commitments made by DeepMind will hold. 

“Given the ownership of Streams has changed, we need clarity on these principles, these are legitimate questions that need to be asked,” said the person. 

One of the company’s independent ethics fellows added: “The key policy/moral issue is what are British taxpayers and patients going to get back from having provided this metadata?” 

The person added: “In any commercial exploitation of the public’s data, whether it’s the NHS or National Grid data or educational data, it is about the terms of that contract, and whether they will deliver benefit to the public. There may be a huge benefit, but that’s the question for Google to answer.”

In March 2017, DeepMind also announced it would build a “data audit” system, as part of its public commitment to transparency. The technology would allow NHS partners to track its use of patient data in real time, with no possibility of falsification, DeepMind said. Google did not comment on whether it will finish the project.

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Meanwhile, the future of the relationship between DeepMind and Google remains hazy. “When we first started work at DeepMind, we were building this radically new technology and we were trying to do it with very strong values,” said Julien Cornebise, one of the first employees at DeepMind, who helped set up the health project but left the firm in 2016. 

“It was not necessarily aligned with one of the big [tech] giants. But of course the world changed and all the giants woke up to the potential of AI.” 


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