Dr. Google: Can a Search Engine Diagnose Cancer?

Okay, to be fair, this blog entry should actually be about “Dr. Bing”. But who uses Bing?

Well, maybe I should be using Bing. Maybe we all should. Because Microsoft scientists reported today that they’ve been able to use Bing search engine queries to identify users who have pancreatic cancer.

The data seems to be statistically sound. As the article notes, “The researchers reported that they could identify from 5 to 15 percent of pancreatic cases with false positive rates of as low as one in 100,000.”

By using the wealth of data from users who actually have pancreatic cancer, Microsoft worked backwards to see what those people searched for in the months and years leading up to their diagnosis. They then applied that data to current users.

For example, an early symptom of pancreatic cancer is jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). So Bing might identify people who are searching for, “yellow eyes.” By itself, that information might not mean anything. But paired with other searches weeks or months later, it might trigger a red flag.

I think this is fascinating. It’s kind of like Big Brother watching over you, but in a good way. Imagine typing something into Bing (or Google) someday, and a red flag appears next to the results saying, “Your search results over the last year indicate that you should have your doctor check you for pancreatic cancer.” It would be scary, but an early diagnosis could also save your life.

I’d love to hear what doctors think about this. How would you respond if a patient told you that Bing had recommended they see a doctor?

6 thoughts on “Dr. Google: Can a Search Engine Diagnose Cancer?”

  1. I find the timing of this post funny because just this morning Dice Tower told me that Scythe would not cure cancer. That’s too bad. It would be great if google could just say, “You might have cancer, go play Scythe.”

  2. Yea, it endlessly amazes me just what companies are starting to be able to do using Machine Learning. We are really just starting to scratch the surface of this kind of technology.

    Full disclosure, I worked at Microsoft in Bing Relevance for quite a few years before leaving to work on board games (and a private software service).

    I am honestly surprised Microsoft was even willing to publically talk about this technology like this. While it is really cool, this tends to freak out users. On the one hand, it is really cool that they could use this to help people catch potentially deadly diseases early, but the other implications of the technology include the ability to detect when someone might be planning to or already doing something illegal or that might be deemed unethical by current societal standards.

    I personally feel that the benefits outweigh the potential abuses, but only insofar as the companies with the data properly anonymize the storage of the data and regularly purge data that is no longer of value to providing direct benefits to the user. I know (at least as of the date when I left Bing), Microsoft did, but I also know for a fact that not all companies working in Machine Learning are nearly as security or privacy conscious.

    • Anthony: Thanks so much for sharing your inside perspective! That’s really cool. I can see what you’re saying about some people being offput by a company knowing this about them. Sure, it could be used for sinister purposes, but I have more faith in humanity than that. Most of humanity, at least! 🙂


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