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A microscopic view of a blood sample shows the telltale signs of malaria as purple dots. (Intellectual Ventures Photo)

SAN FRANCISCO — Can artificial intelligence help battle malaria and other infectious diseases? Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold says it’s time for his company’s AI-enabled microscope to join the fray.

“We’ve gotten to the stage where the machine learning system is better than humans,” Myhrvold said last weekend here at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

He said Intellectual Ventures will announce a partnership with a Chinese company later this month to commercialize the Autoscope technology, which has been under development for years at IV’s lab in Bellevue, Wash.

Myhrvold declined to name the company or provide details about the deal, but he held it up as an example of how technology can further the cause of global health and development.

“The magic that we have used in the 21st century so far has given us pretty much tools and toys for rich people. … I think it’s really important for us to use this magical power of invention and innovation to change the lives of people who really need their lives changed: people at the bottom billion,” he said.

The Autoscope makes use of machine learning to diagnose the signs of malaria on microscopic slides. (Intellectual Ventures Photo)

That’s the aim of the Global Good program, a collaboration involving Intellectual Ventures and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Other IV-backed research projects may delve into advanced technologies like metamaterials and nuclear fission, but Global Good focuses on innovations ranging from computer models that anticipate the spread of infectious diseases to a cooler for vaccines that doesn’t need electricity.

Some of the ideas may sound a bit zany — for example, the scheme to use infrared sensors and lasers to seek out and destroy mosquitoes — but the AI-enabled microscope is as down-to-earth as it gets.

The idea is to train an AI system to recognize the patterns of malaria infection by looking at microscope slides bearing stained blood samples. Malaria parasites show up as purple dots on the slide. After checking thousands of slides, with and without malaria infections, the Autoscope’s deep-learning system figures out how to tell the difference.

Global Good’s research team has conducted field trials of the 15-inch-tall Autoscope device in areas hard-hit by malaria at the Thailand-Myanmar border and elsewhere, with encouraging results. The Chinese deal is aimed at bringing the price of the device down and getting it into the market.

Myhrvold said the Autoscope could be used for more than on-the-scene malaria diagnosis. “We’re repurposing it to also train humans” to do a better job of recognizing the signs of disease, he said.

Because the system is app-based, the Autoscope can be configured to look for the signs of other maladies ranging from leishmaniasis and Chagas disease to some forms of cancer, Myhrvold said.

“If you can stain it, we can find it,” he told GeekWire.


“Innovating for Development” panel at WCSJ2017 with Gates Foundation’s Trevor Mundel, Intellectual Ventures’ Nathan Myhrvold and Kenyan journalist Rosalia Omungo.

Posted by Alan Boyle on Saturday, October 28, 2017

Financially speaking, does Intellectual Ventures do well when it does good? Myhrvold said profit has to enter into the picture at some level, but it all depends on where the company’s innovations are being used.

“We want to have these innovations that we make for the developing world go there and be effective,” he said. “Now, if you insist that no one can make a penny from that, who’s going to go do it?”

Myhrvold said his company doesn’t ask its commercial partners for royalties on products that they ship to the developing world. In such cases, the intellectual property is offered to the partners free of charge.

“When they ship it to middle-income countries, or high-income countries, that’s different,” he said. “Then we ask to get paid. But even on the things that we give them no royalty on, we expect that they’re going to make some money — because that’s what encourages them to go do that.”

Basically, it’s the 21st-century equivalent of a classic proverb: When you give a poor country an AI-enabled microscope, you give a boost to just one lab and its patients. But when you foster a global marketplace for innovation, you give a boost to a much wider swath of society.

Geekwire’s Alan Boyle is president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, one of the organizers of the World Conference of Science Journalists.

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