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How cancer changed this former Google exec’s views on AI and medicine

Kai-Fu Lee says artificial intelligence can revolutionize healthcare as well as the role of doctors


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Jamie Reno
October 21, 2018 6:00PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on Healthline, the world’s second-largest health information website, which brings you transparent health information so you can make confident decisions for living well.
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Kai-Fu Lee became a legend in artificial intelligence research and the tech world because of his groundbreaking work the past three decades with Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

But Lee says cancer has radically changed the way he views technology, his life, and the world of medicine.

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In September 2013, the former head of Google China was given a diagnosis of stage IV follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The cancer diagnosis put his career and life on the line.

Then, it put his career and life in a new light.

Among other things, it was a catalyst for him to write a new book, “AI Super Powers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.”

Lee knows something about this topic.

In addition to his past work, Lee is currently chairman and chief executive officer of Sinovation Ventures, a tech-focused investment firm that already has five artificial intelligence (AI) companies in its $1 billion-plus portfolio.

In an interview with Healthline, Lee talked about the advent of AI and pointed out that today’s AI is nothing like what you see in science fiction movies.

That’s typically what’s called “general AI,” or AI that’s comparable or even superior to humans — including conceptual learning and even self-awareness and emotions.

Today’s AI simply takes in enormous amounts of information from a specific domain and uses it to come to a conclusion in a specific case in the service of a specified goal.

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No cyborgs, emotional robots, or dystopian nightmares. Not yet, anyway.

“It will be a very long time, if ever, that a machine will become humanlike,” Lee said.

Lee’s book, which was released last week, begins as a timely AI road map, then evolves into an emotional plea for sanity and goodness as we continue to make advances with these exciting but scary, unfeeling machines.

In the book, Lee said his cancer battle changed his entire outlook on the nature of man and machine.

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He said it showed him that love is and will always be the most powerful thing on the planet.

The cancer also showed him, in an intensely personal way, how much AI can and will bring to health and medicine.

“It is inevitable that AI will play a major role in the current trend of the personalization of medicine,” Lee said.

An obsessive work ethic

To fully understand who Kai-Fu Lee is, you should know a bit about who he was.

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To describe him as ambitious in the 35-plus years in which he climbed the tech ladder in both the United States and China would be a glaring understatement.

Lee, who admits he had an obsessive, almost fanatical, work ethic, says that throughout his adult life he looked at every aspect of his life as an algorithm.

Even the amount of time he spent with his wife and kids was calculated and quantified.

“I loved my family, but I spent just enough time with them so that they wouldn’t complain,” Lee said.

Read more from Healthline: Artificial Intelligence Can Help Doctors Diagnose Heart Defects in Infants

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As soon as he felt he had assuaged his family’s minimum emotional requirements, he’d quickly return to work to answer emails, launch products, fund companies, and make speeches.

“Even in the depths of sleep, my body would naturally wake itself up twice each night — at 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. — to reply to emails from the United States,” he writes in the book.

Even when a surgical procedure forced Lee to lie flat in bed for two weeks, he couldn’t stop working.

He had a metal crane built that suspended a computer monitor above his pillow and connected it with a keyboard and mouse that he could lay across his lap.

“I was back to answering emails within hours of the surgery,” he writes. “I wanted my employees, bosses, and fans to see me as a supercharged productivity machine, someone who did twice the work and needed half the rest of a normal human being.”

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Wife or Apple president?

Lee’s tunnel-vision ambition is perhaps best exemplified by the day in December 1991 when his wife Shen-Ling was in labor with their first child.

That same day, Lee was scheduled to attend an important meeting with his boss, Apple Chief Executive Officer John Sculley.

At the time, Lee was chief scientist for speech recognition at Apple. The meeting was his big opportunity to convince Apple to approve his proposal to include speech synthesis in every Macintosh computer and speech recognition in all new types of Macs.

At the hospital, the attending doctor told Lee that it was going to be a difficult labor because their baby was in the sunny-side up position, with her head facing the belly instead of toward the back.

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Lee was torn. Should he meet with Sculley and leave his wife to deal with an agonizing and complicated labor on her own?

Checking the clock repeatedly, he considered the short-term and long-term personal and professional consequences of attending the meeting.

He was still weighing it all when the doctors made the decision for him by opting to do an immediate caesarean delivery. It enabled Lee to be present for the birth of his first child and have time to make it to the meeting.

“Within an hour Shen-Ling and I were holding our baby daughter,” Lee recalls in the book. “We all had some time together, and with little time left to spare, I took off for the presentation.”

The presentation went well, Lee recalled. Sculley approved Lee’s project, and an ambitious publicity campaign commenced.

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Lee admits that had he been forced to choose between staying by his wife’s side as she gave birth to their first child or attending that Apple meeting, “I likely would have chosen the meeting.”

But today is a different story.

Lee is a different man in 2018. His first priority now, he insists, is spending quality time with his family and friends.

Whether on business or pleasure, he now travels with his wife. When his children visit, he takes two or three weeks off.

He spends weekends with his best friends. And he took his company in China on a one-week vacation to Silicon Valley, their dream trip.

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The change in Lee came the way it so often does in people when they’re forced to face the possibility of death.

Since his lymphoma diagnosis, Lee has been a signpost of sorts for many other cancer patients in terms of how to proceed with work and life post-cancer diagnosis.

After he was successfully treated and told he was in remission, Lee took inventory of his life and made big, permanent changes.

A different approach toward tech

Lee’s transformation extends beyond the job-vs-family quandary.

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It’s something deeper.

It’s become an opportunity to redefine himself as a human being and to reevaluate just how he and his fellow humans should be deploying the disruptive technologies with which Lee has been obsessed for much of his life.

Changing his philosophy and motivation, Lee came up with new reasons for his existence and a new definition for the respective roles in the world of machines and humans.

It was an awakening that, as I followed him, resonated with me and undoubtedly millions of others who are ambitious and have battled life-threatening illness.

“I’m more interested now in the quality of my relationships than the quantity of my connections,” Lee said.

While he remains uncommonly ambitious, he’s driven now not by money, or power, but love.

How AI will revolutionize healthcare

Lee’s experience as a cancer patient coupled with his knowledge of AI has convinced him just how significant AI will be for patients, from diagnosis to treatment to recovery.

Lee said AI will have a game-changing impact on patients’ effort to get the proper treatment.

The way AI will work in healthcare, he explains, is that a machine will be fed each patient’s complete history, and based on the collection of tens of millions of data, “It will learn more about why certain types of people should get specific treatments with the longest survival rate, among other things.”

Lee said it won’t be long until algorithms can perform many of the diagnostic functions of medical professionals.

“These algorithms will pinpoint illness and prescribe treatments more effectively than any single human being can,” he predicted.

In some cases, Lee explained, doctors will use these equations as a tool. And in other cases, the algorithms may replace the doctor entirely.

Lee said he has great respect and appreciation for the doctors who led his cancer treatment.

“They put years and cutting-edge medical technology to the task of beating back the lymphoma that grew within me,” he writes. “Their knowledge of this illness and their ability to craft a personalized treatment regimen likely saved my life.”

Lee says AI will make diagnosis far more accurate and treatments far more effective.

“Even my first doctor, who was a good doctor, was not aware of the staging of different types of lymphoma,” he recalled.

“He classified me as stage IV, which worried me and put me in a depressed state,” he recalls.

Lee said the oncologist then learned that it was not as serious as he had thought.

“This just shows that the current ways of training doctors are not sufficient to deliver medical care in a broad way to all of the people because it so difficult and expensive to train a small number of experts we have,” he says.

Read more from Healthline: Artificial Intelligence Could Help in Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Lee notes that many people around the world “do not have the money or the luck to find good doctor, therefore many will get imperfect treatment.”

AI will revolutionize diagnosis and treatment and the patient experience, he said. “It is inevitable.”

He said his own cancer experience showed how the medical establishment currently can oversimplify and miscategorize lymphoma.

“Staging actually for my type of lymphoma had no real correlation with survival rates,” he suggested.

Doctors’ roles may change radically

Lee said that because of AI advances, he sees the future doctor as more of a human connector.

There could be 10 times more doctors because the cost of medical care will go down and poor people can access it.

At the same time, you can still have super experts for which you pay a lot of money.

“More doctors could be employed, but they will not be the same kind of doctors as we have today,” he said.

Radiologists, for example, are not nearly as accurate compared to AI.

“Eventually doctors will be replaced in terms of diagnostics,” Lee said.

He added that the doctor’s role will be more of someone who offers the patient compassion.

At least one oncologist isn’t so sure.

Dr. Timothy Pardee, chief medical officer at Rafael Pharmaceuticals and an associate professor and director of leukemia translational research at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, is an oncologist who sees cancer patients every day.

He thinks Lee’s message is powerful, if perhaps overstated.

“While I am excited regarding the future ability of AI to assist in the diagnosing of patients and even in recommending potential treatment algorithms, I do feel that the human connection between oncologist and patient will remain necessary for the optimal care of patients,” Pardee told Healthline.

He adds that in his experience, there are often several possible treatments where the “best” way forward is dependent on the patients view of their illness and world view overall.

“This requires the oncologist to thoroughly explain the different options in language the patient can understand,” Pardee said. “Tough for me to imagine an AI that will be able to incorporate these more intangible aspects of caring for patients at least in my lifetime.”

But Pardee doesn’t disagree with Lee’s predictions about AI improving healthcare and advancing science in a way that the world has not seen.

“I am excited about the prospect of increased usage of basic science data in designing novel interventions for my patients,” he said, “as AI becomes more versed in discerning the underlying biology hidden in the results of experiments that currently elude our mammalian-based interpretations.”

Lee understands there will be pushback against some aspects of AI by doctors as well as many others in the workforce, where Lee acknowledges millions of white-collar and blue-collar jobs will be lost.

But Lee believes the job losses can largely if not completely be mitigated by the creation of new jobs, new roles, and, he says, “new ways for people to gain fulfillment and meaning in their lives.”

After all, Lee didn’t retreat after his cancer. He instead became more open, more optimistic, and more loving. In business and in life.

Getting more personal

Lee talks now about the power and necessity of love and has dramatically cut down his presence on social media.

He devotes that time now to meeting in person with young people who reach out to him.

“I’ve asked for forgiveness from those I have wronged and sought to be a kinder and more empathetic co-worker,” Lee explained in his book.

Most of all, Lee said he’s stopped viewing life as an algorithm that optimizes for influence.

“Instead,” he writes, “I try to spend my energy doing the one thing I’ve found that truly brings meaning to a person’s life: sharing love with those around us.”

Lee is not Pollyanna. His eyes are wide open as he acknowledges there are indeed many real and serious risks that accompany the onslaught of AI — everything from security breaches to enormous job loss to loss of privacy.

But he said AI also holds the promise of significantly improving our lives and even bringing the two world’s two superpowers — the United States and China — closer together.

“In AI there is basically a spirit of collegial sharing and trusting, because we have no way of exaggerating results,” he said.

“You can tell people truthfully what you are doing, AI is not like nuclear weapons. Other than government research, which will be kept secret, AI research is an open community,” he noted.

Lee is an eternal optimist. Having a near-death experience gave him a “new vision” for how humans can coexist with these sometimes intimidating and scary machines.

There’s a profound opportunity for humans to use artificial intelligence to “double down on what makes us truly human,” Lee writes.

“This path won’t be easy, but I believe it represents our best hope of not just surviving in the age of AI but actually thriving. It’s a journey that I’ve taken in my own life, one that turned my focus from machines back to people, and from intelligence back to love.”


Jamie Reno

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