Tech giants are getting involved in healthcare
Frank Niedercorn

PARIS — What if the GAFA quartet (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) also became giants in the healthcare sector? Google first tried to put on the white coat more than a decade ago. After "Google Health," its online medical record project abandoned in 2012, the company made a strong comeback with its subsidiary DeepMind Health, doing what it does best: collecting and processing data. In this case, the data was that of patients in hospitals, particularly in the United Kingdom.

However, things were more difficult than expected with the Royal Free Hospital Trust, which allowed the company to access the medical history of 1.6 million patients. The agreement was terminated when UK authorities found that the data had not been kept anonymous, and had been used in a broader context than originally planned.

But Alphabet, Google's parent company, has several other irons in the fire. The Baseline project, led by its subsidiary Verily, aims to "map" human health by collecting health data from 10,000 volunteers using connected objects. The latest initiative in the Alphabet galaxy, the U.S. startup Cityblock, in which another subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, has invested, aims to offer medical services and prevention to Medicaid or Medicare members.

The other Web giants are not far behind. Amazon is moving into health insurance, and Facebook AI Research (Fair), after recruiting Yann LeCun, one of the fathers of deep learning, has hired Jérôme Pesenti, a former head of IBM's Watson program. Apple has also confirmed its interest in the health sector with its Apple Watch Series 4, the first consumer device with a sensor and algorithm that can detect a heart attack.

Did IBM's Watson Health start too early? From 2011 and the victory of its artificial intelligence program in the game show Jeopardy, IBM had been targeting the health market, including cancer research. The program, which functions as a diagnostic aid, has been trained by absorbing much of the English-language scientific literature on oncology. According to IBM, and depending on the type of cancer, its treatment recommendations are in line with those made by doctors in at least 8 out of 10 cases, and even 96% of cases for lung cancer.

Doubts have been arising about the reliability of Watson's advice.

However, since last year, doubts have been arising about the reliability of Watson's advice. One of the flagship projects, conducted with the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, has been abandoned. People at IBM say it's because the system is too young.

"There is a real issue around the representativeness of data," explains Silvano Sansoni, sales manager at IBM France. "Watson is used to treat 84,000 patients, mainly American and European, and its recommendations are less applicable to patients from Asia or Africa. Changing the scale to 1 million subjects will require a lot of resources."

Big Blue now claims 230 hospitals worldwide as users, compared to 55 last year. Although it doesn't have a hospital partner in France, it signed an agreement last July with the French company Guerbet, a specialist in radiology contrast products, to conduct research on liver cancer.

Philips is probably the most active company among the major healthcare industrialists, particularly in the medical imaging sector. The firm has just created an AI expertise center in Paris, where it employs some 30 researchers. The objective is to create partnerships with startups and hospitals.


Tech and healthcare are becoming more integrated — Photo: Piron Guillaume

Meanwhile, Babylon Health, a young British company that has raised 50 million pounds since its creation in 2014 and developed a consulting service based on a smartphone application, promises its users "a doctor 24/7." The world of startups using artificial intelligence to innovate in health is booming: CB Insights has identified 481 deals, for a total of $3.6 billion invested over the past five years.

For startups, one of the challenges remains access to data. This is precisely the originality of Owkin, a start-up that specializes in machine learning and oncology research, which counts Google Ventures an an investor. "We collaborate with public research by implementing the principle of federated learning. This allows algorithms to be exchanged so they can be trained without having to externalize the data," says Thomas Clozel, co-founder of Owkin.

On October 4, the young French-U.S. company announced the launch of a collaborative project with Apricity, another startup that specializes in fertility research. The project is called "Substra", funded to the tune of 10 million euros by French public investment arm Bpifrance. The ambition is to develop, together with six major public research institutes, a secure treatment platform and thus to run their predictive algorithms in their preferred fields: anatomopathology, dermatology, and fertility.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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