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Alphabet’s DeepMind Is Trying to Transform Health Care — But Should an AI Company Have Your Health Records?

The London company’s work with hospitals has raised privacy concerns and threatened its ambitions.

Photographer: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

DeepMind, the digital brain foundry owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, wants to use artificial intelligence to solve… well, everything. Last year, its software taught itself to play the strategy game Go better than any human on the planet. For its next trick, it wants to move beyond games to a very real-world problem: health care.

The London company has a fast-growing division—now 100 strong—dedicated to health. And while DeepMind’s research on Go may be years away from yielding practical applications, its health-care work is affecting people’s lives today through projects with the U.K.’s National Health Service. These include a mobile app to alert doctors and nurses to changes in a patient’s condition and efforts to research whether computers can analyze various kinds of medical imagery as well as experienced doctors. The company believes AI has the power to save lives. But DeepMind’s maiden voyage into the field has also run smack into an iceberg of privacy and ethical concerns—and the resulting controversy has threatened to sink its ambitions of using AI to transform health care.