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Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire / Dan DeLong)

Microsoft launched a major health research initiative Wednesday to address some of the medical world’s most confounding challenges using artificial intelligence.

The $40 million AI for Health initiative will focus on three core areas:

  • Studying, preventing, and treating diseases
  • Studying mortality and longevity around the world to protect against the next global health crisis
  • Reducing inequity in global healthcare

Microsoft will provide grants, data science experts, technology, and other resources to help partner organizations tackle health projects under the initiative.

The tech giant is working with Seattle Children’s Research Institute to study Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, for example. Its a topic of personal significance to John Kahan, Microsoft’s chief data analytics officer and the head of the AI for Health program. Kahan shared his story during a launch event for the initiative Wednesday.

“I saw firsthand, both personally and professionally, how you can marry artificial intelligence and medical research to advance this field,” Kahan said. “I saw because I lost my first son, and only son, to SIDS and I saw our head of data science partner with leading medical experts at Seattle Children’s and research institutes around the world. Today, based on their work, they now estimate that 22 percent of the deaths from SIDS are attributed to smoking.”

Microsoft, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Cascadia Data Discovery Initiative are also exploring ways to leverage health data across institutions for cancer prevention and treatment. Microsoft outlined additional projects under the AI for Health program in a blog post published Wednesday.

Microsoft’s first round of AI for Health grants will go to Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, BRAC, Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems, Novartis Foundation, and PATH.

“Artificial intelligence has the potential to solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges, like improving the health of communities around the world,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith in a statement. “We know that putting this powerful technology into the hands of experts tackling this problem can accelerate new solutions and improve access for underserved populations.”

AI for Health is part of Microsoft’s broader AI for Good initiative, a $165 million effort to use new computing technologies to address societal challenges. Other pillars of the program include Microsoft’s AI for Earth, AI for Humanitarian Action, AI for Accessibility and AI for Cultural Heritage initiatives.

AI is a core focus area for Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella. The company is investing $1 billion in OpenAI, an organization formed by Silicon Valley leaders to pursue breakthroughs in “general artificial intelligence.” Such technology would be capable of developing deep expertise across many subjects, not just one domain, surpassing human abilities to help solve major challenges in areas such as healthcare, climate change, and education.

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