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Technology

Alibaba's AI helps detect coronavirus pneumonia within a minute

Japan's M3 to offer diagnostic systems to hospitals to supplement testing

AI-aided diagnostic tools hold promise in identifying COVID-19 pneumonia.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Medical information provider M3 has tapped Alibaba Group Holding's artificial intelligence technology to develop a diagnostic system that can quickly identify COVID-19 pneumonia in CT scan images.

The system, which is awaiting approval from the health ministry, holds promise as a supplementary testing tool as Japan struggles to expand capacity for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests for the coronavirus.

The plans is to supply the system to hospitals in Japan, expanding to hundreds of locations eventually. Hospitals will send computed tomography scans of the chest to M3's system, which will send back results, indicating the possibility of COVID-19 pneumonia in a scale of 1 to 5.

Alibaba's diagnostic AI tool is used at hospitals in places like Shanghai and Hubei Province, which includes Wuhan. It can identify COVID-19 within about 20 seconds -- just one-60th of the time a doctor generally takes -- at accuracy of 90% or greater, according to Alibaba.

Sony-affiliated M3 has been testing Alibaba's AI in Japan since the end of March, using PCR tests to confirm AI's screening results. The new system performs analysis in less than a minute with high accuracy, albeit falling short of 90%, the Japanese company said. Data obtained by the system will be used exclusively in Japan.

CT scans of COVID-19 patients are said to show hazy, ground-glass patches. But reading scans can be tricky even for highly skilled physicians, as "only about half the patients clearly show such typical characteristic," said Junichi Matsumoto at St. Marianna University School of Medicine in Japan.

Japan has green-lighted saliva-based PCR tests but has still lagged other countries in testing capacity. Tapping Japan's substantial pool of CT scanners to identify coronavirus pneumonia can lead to faster diagnosis, possibly helping deliver treatment to patients before they get seriously ill.

AI is gaining traction as a diagnostic tool. Image-diagnosis provider Doctor Net, a group member of machine maker Noritsu Koki, has teamed up with Beijing Infervision Technology, which has developed an AI-powered CT scan screening system for COVID-19 that is already used in China.

Medical AI developers in Europe are playing catch-up with Chinese rivals. Germany's Siemens has developed software for assisting CT scan reading for coronavirus pneumonia with AI and provides it to medical institutions around the world for research purposes.

Amazon.com provides financial support to universities and research institutions working on enhancing coronavirus-related technologies using its cloud computing system.

The global market for medical AI is projected to reach $36 billion in 2025, growing 17 times its 2018 level, according to U.S. firm MarketsandMarkets Research Private.

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