Babylon stumbles on popping knees, but app goes the distance

Asked to diagnose three conditions, the Babylon app comes up trumps

LONDON 6th August 2018. Dr Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of Babylon Health at their offices in London. Stephen Lock for the National
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Babylon aims to “put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth”. How does it work?

After downloading the Babylon app, The National used three scenarios to put it to the test. The assumed medical conditions were a torn cruciate ligament, brain tumour and swine flu. Information regarding symptoms for the different diseases were acquired via the Mayo Clinic website.

At the beginning of each text conversation with the Babylon AI, we received what appeared to be some sort of disclaimer, reminding us that the AI is not a real medical practitioner, merely offering information rather than diagnosing.

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As Babylon AI seamlessly conversed with the user, we were asked not only about the various symptoms we were experiencing but the nature of pains and aches.

The interview was carried out largely via tick-box questions, users having to type in what symptom they were experiencing manually and the AI reverting to pre-set questions from there.

Regarding the torn ACL and Brain Tumour, the AI performed well, understanding our manual entries as it questioned us in detail about conditions. These included the distribution of swelling, where on the specific part of the body (be it the head or the knee) we experienced the most pain, and to what extent we could support ourselves and put weight on the body part without assistance.

The AI moved into a second round of questioning in an attempt to filter down what our condition may be. This involved asking more personal questions about crucial areas such as our neck and back, our previous medical history, and whether we smoked.

In the case of swine flu, it determined a flu but not the specific variant.


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There were times, however, when Babylon revealed the non-human, “artificial” aspect of its intelligence.  During the first round of questioning for the torn ACL, the AI could not understand one of the symptoms:  a popping sensation in the knee.

Alongside saying “don’t be alarmed” before each description, it appeared that Babylon was focused on trying to keep us calm while giving information.

The app itself was easy to use.