Over the last year, the world has faced unprecedented healthcare challenges. Tech for Good speaks to Intel about the company’s Pandemic Response Technology Initiative and its use of AI to diagnose and support the visually impaired all over the world, from Bristol to India

Author // Beatriz Valero de Urquia

Is artificial intelligence the ‘holy grail’ of modern medicine? Intel seems to think so. The company is using this technology to solve many of the healthcare challenges of the world, from COVID-19 management to blindness prevention. Although the trend towards the use of innovative solutions in healthcare is nothing new, the pandemic has significantly accelerated it, proving that many times it can make the difference between life and death. Experts predict that the healthcare AI-powered tools market will exceed $34 billion by 2025 and expect this technology to bring $150 billion in annual savings for the US healthcare economy alone by the following year. Already, the number of active AI startups has increased 14-fold since 2000. However, startups are not the only ones leading the way when it comes to medical innovations. IT giants such as Intel have also taken notice of the potential of this field, and have leveraged its huge expertise to improve people’s health. Pippa Chick, Global Account Director in the Health and Life Sciences Industry Team, and Hema Chamraj, Technology Advocacy Lead at Data Platforms Marketing Group, at Intel Corporation have been working to develop and provide technology solutions that change people’s lives, from COVID-19 relief to helping the visually impaired. “At Intel, we are committed to accelerating adoption of responsible and inclusive technology in key areas like health and safety,” Chamraj says.

As with many stories these days, it all started with a global pandemic.

In April of last year, Intel launched the Pandemic Response Technology Initiative (PRTI), a $50 million commitment to use technology to combat the impact of COVID-19. It was an ambitious project that wanted to provide the necessary relief, but also look into how similar crises could be avoided in the future, investing in medical innovations and education.

“The PRTI was designed to provide a 360-degree view of the challenges ahead, focusing on how Intel technologies can enhance healthcare, education and the economic recovery of businesses at all levels,” says Chick. “The goal was to deliver immediate relief where it was needed most, develop innovative solutions to support the new normal and invest in technology that would limit the impact of future crises. Nearly every piece of Intel technology was leveraged in some way.”

A year later, the PRTI has been able to deliver 230 projects spread across 170 organisations around the world. One of its most successful initiatives was the use of AI to analyse CT and X-ray images to determine the presence and severity of COVID-19 in patients, at a time when PCR tests were in extreme shortage. Moreover, UC San Francisco leveraged Intel SGX to deploy a confidential computing platform that protects both the algorithms and privacy of healthcare data when building AI models.

“From a healthcare perspective, PRTI worked with partners across the sector, from universities and hospitals to equipment manufacturers and infrastructure partners, to maximise our impact at every level,” Chick says. “The tech solutions we supported spanned from using medical imaging to help diagnose and triage patients with COVID-19, to telehealth solutions which enabled access to medical care while minimising the risk for patients and clinicians to providing high-performance computer resources for COVID-19 research as well as research projects that go beyond the current pandemic.”

As part of the PRTI, Chick has worked with the National Health Service and with technology solution companies to deliver key infrastructure and end point devices as well as harnessing AI and machine learning for improved efficiency and patient outcomes.

To get the full picture of the benefits that this partnership brought, we need to travel to Bristol.

The PRTI was designed to provide a 360-degree view of the challenges ahead, focusing on how Intel technologies can enhance healthcare, education and the economic recovery of businesses at all levels”
Pippa Chick

It is there, in the west of England, where Intel has developed one of the PRTI’s most successful partnerships, with University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW). Last June, Intel helped these organisations to deploy its vPro platform, to respond to the high IT demands that came with the pandemic, and allow IT teams to manage the hospital systems remotely, therefore reducing their risk of infection and the need to provide them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which was in short supply as of last March.

“One of the biggest challenges for IT teams working in healthcare settings is accessing areas where strict cleanliness standards must be upheld, particularly for ICUs or labs where PPE is mandatory,” Chick says. “Our vPro technology enables IT teams to manage devices remotely, giving them hardware-level access to everything from desktops and laptops to digital signs and display screens.”

These unique remote management capabilities have helped UHBW’s IT team to respond to technical issues in healthcare facilities much more rapidly. As a result, they have been able to reduce downtime for critical departments such as ICUs and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

“The platform is helping to make IT support systems in ICUs and other critical departments ‘invisible’, so that frontline staff can focus on delivering a high standard of uninterrupted care,” Chick says.

Less than a year later, UHBW has over 200 devices powered by the Intel vPro platform deployed across multiple sites. The technology works with existing systems to provide a critical boost to remote management capabilities and has been something of a game-changer for the IT team during the pandemic. It has reduced onsite engineer visits which is helping to keep infection risk to an absolute minimum.

A year after the launch of PRTI, and in light of its achievements, Intel has decided to transition the project into a longer-term commitment: the Intel RISE Technology Initiative (IRTI), supported with a further $20 million. The IRTI will continue to review and fund projects related to healthcare, education and the economy with new dedicated workstreams for social equity and human rights, accessibility, and climate action.

This new initiative has a clear protagonist: artificial intelligence.

Bristol city centre

Mumbai, India

“While COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the inadequate public health infrastructure, data silos, inequity and mistrust in the health system, it has also accelerated technology adoption including AI in healthcare,” Chamraj says.

A July 2020 Intel survey of U.S. healthcare leaders found that 84% of those surveyed have already deployed or expect to deploy AI in their clinical workflow, compared to 37% in 2018. As the numbers show, AI is here to stay; and Intel is welcoming it with open arms.

Last September, Intel and Samsung Medison - an affiliate of Samsung Electronics - announced a collaborative project to leverage AI to measure fetal development during pregnancy and birth, reducing the risk of labour-related mortality. The solution has already received FDA approval and is in use in over 80 countries. Moreover, both companies have recently announced a second collaboration, also featuring AI but with a focus on anaesthesia. The tool, called NerveTrack, helps doctors quickly identify the nerve area, reducing scanning time by 30% and increasing the safety of anaesthesia administration overall.

All of these projects will help improve the safety of existing medical treatments. However, there is one area of healthcare in which Intel is using AI to do truly groundbreaking work: vision loss.

“Intel is working with the industry to provide tools to solve problems in medical imaging including visual impairment, which affects 285 million people today,” Chamraj says.

Intel has many projects that aim to help the visually impared, from preventing diabetes-related sight loss to developing solutions to improve the day-to-day lives of people who suffer from these conditions.

One of the most common preventable types of visual impairments is caused by diabetes, which can lead to problems such as blurry vision, cataracts, glaucoma and retinopathy. The latter is particularly dangerous, as it is the major cause of blindness and vision loss in working-age people. This is the case because people with diabetes may not experience early symptoms of diabetic retinopathy until it is too late to treat them.

The technology exists; we are only limited by the imagination of the developer community”
Hema Chamraj

Diabetic retinopathy is particularly problematic in India, which has one of the largest diabetic populations of any country in the world and is predicted to reach 98 million cases by 2030. In a country where the majority of the population lives in rural areas with little or no access to trained retinal specialists, early detection is incredibly important. This is why Intel has partnered with Sankara Eye Foundation to develop a solution.

“Diabetic retinopathy, if left undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to complete blindness,” Chamraj says. “Early screening with solutions like Netra.AI lead to timely treatment and can help prevent people from losing their eyesight.”

Intel-powered Netra.AI analyses images from portable, technician-operated fundus camera devices to detect signs of DR. The solution is able to show the results within two minutes of doing the test, allowing doctors to provide instant diagnosis and treatment recommendations. Netra.AI uses cutting-edge AI algorithms, developed in collaboration with leading retina experts, with a four-step deep convolutional neural network that analyses the images.

Although the current situation in India regarding the pandemic has slowed down the development plans, Sankara Eye Foundation plans to roll out the solution across its network of 10 Indian hospitals very soon, and continue to expand from there. Nonetheless, the positive impact of the technology is already obvious.

“Currently 3,093 patients are being screened by this solution in India and we’re already witnessing the impact with 742 patients being identified as ‘at-risk’,” Chamraj says. “The long-term conceptual plan we’re working to is to build a small-form factor device to perform screening of patients locally removing the need for patients to have to travel to a hospital for screening. Netra.AI will be a powerful tool for screening retinal illnesses in large populations who have limited infrastructure and resources, and are faced with the challenges of an overburdened healthcare system.” However, the work does not stop when a vision-related condition is detected. In that moment, the patient’s needs only increase.

According to the World Health Organization, there are over 285 million people who are visually impared across the world. Although there are some systems that try to support these people in their day-to-day lives, existing visual assistance navigation systems are fairly limited, ranging from voice-assisted smartphone apps to camera-enabled walking stick solutions. Moreover, they also often lack the depth perception necessary to facilitate independent navigation, something necessary to allow visually impaired people to walk and work by themselves.

Using Intel’s AI technology, developer Jagadish K. Mahendran created a surprising but very portable solution: a voice-activated backpack.

Intel-powered AI backpack

“With the AI-powered backpack, a Bluetooth-enabled earphone lets the user interact with the visual system via voice queries and commands, and the system responds with verbal information,” Chamraj says. “As the user moves through their environment, the visual assistance system audibly conveys information about common obstacles including signs, tree branches and pedestrians, essentially facilitating independent navigation. It also warns of upcoming crosswalks, curbs, staircases and entryways to ensure the user’s safety.”

The backpack hides the visual system, powered by a host computing unit, such as a laptop. A vest jacket conceals a camera, and a belt bag holds a pocket-size battery pack capable of providing approximately eight hours of use. The computing unit is a powerful AI device that runs on Intel Movidius VPU and the Intel Distribution of OpenVINO toolkit for on-chip edge AI inferencing, capable of running advanced neural networks while providing accelerated computer vision functions and a real-time depth map from its stereo pair, as well as colour information from a single 4k camera.

“It’s incredible to see a developer take Intel’s AI technology for the edge and quickly build a solution to make their friend’s life easier,” Chamraj says. “The technology exists; we are only limited by the imagination of the developer community.”

Using every type of technology, from AI to IT systems, and in every place from Bristol to India, Intel is dedicated to the mission of using technology to advance healthcare and make those in need feel seen.