Microsoft launches $40M AI for Health program to accelerate medical research

Microsoft plans to spend $40 million to support collaborative projects leveraging artificial intelligence for medical research and discoveries.

The five-year program, called AI for Health, is the fifth program Microsoft has rolled out as part of its AI for Good initiative, the tech giant announced Wednesday.

Microsoft's AI for Good is a $165 million program to provide researchers and nonprofits with technology tools to address pressing concerns such as global climate, humanitarian and accessibility issues.

"Artificial intelligence has the potential to solve some of humanity's greatest challenges, like improving the health of communities around the world," said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, said in a statement.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement that AI "represents one of technology’s most important priorities, and healthcare is perhaps AI’s most urgent application."

Microsoft plans to collaborate with several grantees, including BRAC, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems (IRIS) and the Novartis Foundation.

One program partner, Seattle Children's Research Institute, is using AI to discover the cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The AI for Health initiative will be led by John Kahan, chief data analytics officer at Microsoft, who lost his son 15 years ago to SIDS.

"I saw firsthand, personally and professionally, how you can marry AI and medical research to advance this field," Kahan said in a video Microsoft released Wednesday.

Seattle Children's has started whole genome sequencing, and the AI for Health grant will help researchers take the next step to use genetic information to understand risk factors, said Nino Ramirez, Ph.D., director for the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle's Children, in the video.

Other AI for Health initiatives will focus on using AI to detect diabetic retinopathy to prevent blindness, stop the transmission of leprosy and enable the sharing of biomedical data to advance cancer treatments.

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"With Microsoft AI for Health we’re creating a data ecosystem that allows people to share data and doing that in a way that still maintains the privacy for the patient," said Brenda Kostelecky, Ph.D., director of the Cascadia Health Alliance at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The talent and resources required to equip health researchers with tools to deploy AI and data science is unevenly distributed, according to Microsoft. Less than 5% of the world's AI professionals today work in health and nonprofit organizations.

Microsoft executives said the program is underpinned with a strong foundation of privacy, security and ethics and was developed in collaboration with leading health experts who are driving important medical initiatives.