ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) can sometimes be put to rather whimsical uses. In 2012 Google announced that one of its computers, after watching thousands of hours of YouTube videos, had trained itself to identify cats. Earlier this year a secretive AI firm called DeepMind, bought by Google in 2014, reported in Nature that it had managed to train a computer to play a series of classic video games, often better than a human could, using nothing more than the games’ on-screen graphics.
But the point of such diversions is to illustrate that, thanks to a newish approach going by the name of "deep learning", computers increasingly possess the pattern-recognition skills—identifying faces, interpreting pictures, listening to speech and the like—that were long thought to be the preserve of humans. Researchers, from startups to giant corporations, are now planning to put AI to work to solve more serious problems.
One such organisation is the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF). The disease in the charity’s sights is diabetic retinopathy, one of the many long-term complications of diabetes. It is caused by damage to the tiny blood vessels that supply the retina. Untreated, it can lead to total loss of vision. Around 80% of diabetics will develop retinal damage after a decade; in rich countries it is one of the leading causes of blindness in the young and middle-aged. Much of the damage can be prevented with laser treatment, drugs or surgery if caught early, but there are few symptoms at first. The best bet is therefore to offer frequent check-ups to diabetics, with trained doctors examining their retinas for subtle but worrying changes.
But diabetes is common and doctors are busy. Inspired by recent advances in AI, the CHCF began wondering if computers might be able to do the job of examining retinas cheaply and more quickly.
Being medics, rather than AI researchers, the CHCF turned for help to a website called Kaggle, which organises competitions for statisticians and data scientists. (It was founded by Anthony Goldbloom, who once worked as an intern at The Economist.) The CHCF uploaded a trove of thousands of images of retinas, both diseased and healthy, stumped up the cash for a $100,000 prize, and let Kaggle’s members—who range from graduate students to teams working for AI companies—get to grips with the problem.