Microsoft takes wraps off $40M 'AI for Health' initiative

Devin Coldewey
Female scientist in lab coat checking artificial neurons connected into neural network. Computational neuroscience, machine learning, scientific research. Vector illustration in flat cartoon style

When the topics of Microsoft and global health overlap, one tends to think about the Gates Foundation, but the company itself is doing good work along these lines as well. The latest such effort is AI for Health, a $40 million, five-year outgrowth of Microsoft's AI for Good program that aims to help apply the benefits of AI with an eye to bettering the health of the less fortunate worldwide.

The new initiative will focus on direct research in the medical AI field (think algorithms for automatically detecting a disease), global health studies (that is, better understanding of how such things could be of use) and improving access (actually putting the algorithms to work).

"AI for Health is a philanthropic initiative that complements our broader work in Microsoft Healthcare," wrote Microsoft's John Kahan in a blog post announcing the new program. "We will support specific nonprofits and academic collaboration with Microsoft's leading data scientists, access to best-in-class AI tools and cloud computing, and select cash grants."

Kahan points out that modern healthcare is incredibly unevenly distributed, coming near eliminating some diseases and forms of death in some countries, while others are ravaged by the same. That's not exactly a problem that AI can solve, but there are things that it can do.

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For instance, he points out, there are highly effective AI-based screening systems for diabetic retinopathy, a condition millions are at risk of that can lead to blindness. Getting a village access to a mobile phone and eye-inspection attachment is a lot easier and cheaper than dispatching an ophthalmologist.

It's the goal of AI for Health to help engineer, identify and deploy technologies like that. Part of that is simply a question of cost — many AI experts are in the more general tech sector because that's where the jobs are. Getting them to cross over to the social-good side means those projects will need to be competitive and successful, which a bit of Microsoft cash might help with.

The company noted a few partnerships that will benefit from the new program, with medical research outfits looking into SIDS, leprosy, diabetic retinopathy as mentioned above, tuberculosis, maternal mortality and, of course that eternal adversary, cancer.

Unfortunately, unlike some of Microsoft's other grant programs, this $40 million isn't up for grabs via public applications: It will be working directly with nonprofits and research organizations. But if you're at one of those organizations, it might be a good time to get in touch with your collaborators in Redmond.