How Canadian AI is kick-starting new discoveries in health and science

Click to play video: 'A.I.  fuels unprecedented growth in health and science'
A.I. fuels unprecedented growth in health and science
WATCH: Artificial Intelligence is developing so fast, it's hard to keep up with where it's taking us. It's used in translation programs, traffic apps, and the games we play online. Mike Drolet looks at the newest applications of AI, and how they could change our lives. – May 8, 2019

Artificial intelligence is poised to rocket the fields of science and health into the future, and Canada could play a pivotal role.

Canada’s space agency is exploring ways to equip future technology with AI. The Canadarm2, which astronaut David Saint-Jacques will use to perform the first every “cosmic catch” of a space rocket loaded with supplies for the International Space Station, has been developed with AI capabilities so that it can perform certain tasks autonomously.

NASA has also equipped its new Mars rover with AI so that it uses its smarts to avoid hazards like the soft sand that the rover Spirit got stuck in.

But while robotics is an obvious launching pad, AI is poised to transform health care in ways never thought possible.

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Toronto-based company Winterlight has developed a tool that it says will enable doctors to assess Alzheimer’s in elderly patients more efficiently than the current method of comparing written tests taken months apart.

“What we’re trying to do with AI is trying to catch people in their natural sort of environment or their natural behaviour,” said Winterlight’s Frank Rudzicz. “So a lot of our early work involves a snapshot of 45 seconds of speech, and we’re able to get 92 per cent accuracy.”

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WATCH: How artificial intelligence is being used to improve humans’ lives

Click to play video: 'How artificial intelligence is being used to improve humans’ lives'
How artificial intelligence is being used to improve humans’ lives

The company’s program is being used in several nursing homes as part of a pilot project. Using a computer tablet, researchers show seniors pictures and ask them to describe the images.

Winterlight bases its data on the seniors’ speech patterns. And while the company is being careful to say it is not “diagnosing” dementia at this point, it is confident that the technology is “assessing” patients well enough to give doctors an extra tool that can enable them to start treatment earlier.

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We also have to not hand too much autonomy over to the machines,” said Rudzicz. “I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. But we have to make sure that when the AI says you have this probability of having this disease, we’re able to open the black box and say: ‘This is why the decision was made.” Because AI is not perfect; it makes mistakes.”

But given enough data, AI can be life-changing and effective. A study done in Germany pitted a deep learning network against 58 dermatologists from 17 countries to see which was more accurate at detecting skin cancer — and the computer won.

Another Canadian company, Cyclica, is poised for serious growth in the near future, adding to Toronto’s tech boom, which has seen more skilled workers hired than San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle combined over the past year.

Cyclica develops pharmaceutical drugs, yet it doesn’t have a traditional lab.

“Cyclica’s lab is filled with a bunch of brilliant scientists with PhDs in computation chemistry who code, who apply new algorithms to drive novel insights,” said CEO Naheed Kurji.

His team uses computers to simulate how drugs interact with the proteins linked to diseases. Kurji predicts a future where drugs can be more readily tailored not only to specific diseases but to individuals as well. But right now, he says, they have the ability to shorten the time it takes to develop costly new drugs.

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“And we believe that we can take drug discovery down from seven to two years and, in so doing, save hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

Add the time it takes for concept and research, and a new drug can be created in about eight years.

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