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A Promising New Way To Spot Cancer? Your Search History

If your Internet searches reveal you have cancer, should Google or Microsoft tell you? And how?

A Promising New Way To Spot Cancer? Your Search History

Photos: Microsoft/NIH

In a study published this week in the Journal of Oncology Practice, Microsoft researchers revealed that they can likely identify many Bing users who have pancreatic cancer—even before their disease has been diagnosed.

Using anonymized historical search data, the team pulled out users whose searches indicated that they had pancreatic cancer. Then, they combed through their search histories for signals of early symptoms. Researchers were able to identify 5%-15% of pancreatic cancer from these early searches alone, with false positive rates as low as 1:100,000—with the ability to distinguish paranoid search queries from earnest self-diagnosis. Given that pancreatic cancer is typically detected late, Microsoft’s methodology could theoretically flag users to get screened sooner and, in turn, increase five-year-survival rates by a small but significant margin.

"The question, ‘What might we do? Might there be a Cortana for health some day?’" Dr. Horvitz told the New York Times.

That's a question I explored earlier this year in my feature about the ethical obligation of technology companies to tell you if you have cancer. The experts I spoke to all agreed that search-based diagnosis was on the horizon—and now, Microsoft has proven them right. However, they also highlighted how complicated this conversation with Cortana would be. Doctors still debate whether or not it’s ethical to diagnose a melanoma they spot on the subway, because that stranger has not opted-in to the diagnosis. Meanwhile, guessing incorrectly comes with increased medical testing and needless medical costs—along with potential ill will from an ungrateful populace getting poked and prodded unnecessarily. Google garnered significant negative press when its search-based flu trends project failed to live up to hype (hype that was generated largely by the media itself).

Microsoft has not detailed if it is planning to build search-based diagnosis into Bing or Cortana. However, as the Times points out, one of the lead researchers on the study, Dr. Ryen White, is now the chief technology officer of health intelligence in Microsoft’s young Health & Wellness division.

Then there is the ultimate question: how would you want Cortana to break the bad news? Does she use geolocation to pinpoint when you’re at home? Does she ask first if anyone else is present? Does she speak with an emotional understanding, or a scientific objectivity? What does bedside manner look like when it’s beamed from a smartwatch?

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