U.K. targets AI-driven 10% drop in cancer deaths by 2033

Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May (Annika Haas/CC BY 2.0)

The United Kingdom is aiming to cut cancer deaths by 10% by using artificial intelligence to diagnose patients sooner. Prime Minister Theresa May will set the target in a speech intended to set the U.K. on a path that leads to AI becoming a key industry and a driver of improved health outcomes.

May thinks the unlocking of the U.K.’s health data assets and application of AI could result in 22,000 fewer patients dying from cancer annually by 2033. The predicted decline in deaths is underpinned by a belief AI can accelerate the diagnosis of prostate, ovarian, lung or bowel cancer in 50,000 people a year. Making early rather than late diagnoses would save lives by facilitating more efficacious care.

“Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths. And the development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research and gives us a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease,” May is expected to say in a speech Monday.

The plan is built on the idea that “emerging technologies” will be able to “cross reference people’s genetics, habits and medical records with national data to spot those at an early stage of cancer.” Once the system flags a patient as possibly having early-stage cancer, their doctor will refer them to an oncologist for confirmation and treatment.

May’s vision is in line with how technology companies foresee AI improving the diagnosis of disease. However, there is a chasm between that vision and the capabilities we have today. Neither May nor the U.K. government is equipped to close the gap. Instead, the plan is to set a target for the industry and support businesses as they work toward it, a model the Financial Times reports is influenced by the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato. 

The support will be a mix of financial—The Guardian reports May will pledge “millions”—and other assets. As a cradle-to-grave single payer healthcare system, the U.K.’s NHS is sitting on a trove of data that may enable the types of breakthroughs envisaged by May. However, attempts to make some of these data available for research have encountered resistance.  

May’s speech, a rare, science-focused communication from a British leader, comes at a time when countries around the world are seeking to establish themselves at the forefront of the AI sector. With France making a push, China having a wealth of data and high-level support and the U.S. housing the big tech companies, the U.K. will need to corral its resources to carve out a space in the sector.