Alphabet merges DeepMind and health efforts into Google

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Alphabet is merging part of its London-based artificial intelligence company DeepMind into sister company Google.

DeepMind executives say the team that created a mobile app to alert healthcare providers to hospital patients at risk of deteriorating will join a newly formed Google division, called Google Health. The unit is being headed by David Feinberg, the former chief executive officer of Geisinger Health Systems.

Google bought DeepMind, founded in 2012, for 400 million pounds in 2014. The next year, the company began working on healthcare research, eventually creating an entire division dedicated to the area.

DeepMind Health’s first product, a mobile app called Streams that was originally designed to help doctors identify patients at risk of developing acute kidney injury, proved controversial. In July 2017, the U.K.’s data privacy watchdog said DeepMind’s partner in the project, London’s Royal Free Hospital, illegally gave DeepMind access to 1.6 million patient records.

The Royal Free Hospital accepted the findings, but said it needed to hand over the records so that DeepMind could test the app’s safety.

In addition to the Royal Free Hospital, DeepMind has agreements with three other U.K. National Health Service hospital trusts to deploy Streams. The company also has been working with NHS hospitals, researching algorithms that can diagnose eye diseases, and spot head and neck cancers from medical imagery. It’s also working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on an algorithm that can predict which patients are at risk of sudden deterioration from acute kidney injury and other conditions.

The Streams team and those employees working on clinical evaluations of algorithms will transfer to Google Health, according to a statement from DeepMind. Dominic King, a former NHS surgeon, who had been DeepMind Health’s clinical director, will lead the team in London, and the DeepMind Health brand will cease to exist.

Employees who were working on more fundamental and scientific research—as opposed to building products from that research—will remain at DeepMind, a company spokesperson said.

Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s co-founder and chief executive officer, portrayed the merger as a positive step. "One of the reasons we joined forces with Google was to give us the platform to more rapidly bring our technologies to the wider world," he said in a statement. "The research team at DeepMind will continue to lead the way in applying AI to important fundamental research questions in science and medicine."

Julia Powles, a research fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute who has criticized DeepMind’s healthcare work in the past, called the merger with Google “totally unacceptable” on Twitter. She said DeepMind had offered repeated assurances that no patient data from its work with NHS hospitals would ever be transferred to Google. “Now it has announced ... exactly that,” she tweeted. “This isn’t transparency; it is trust demolition.”

Bloomberg News