Google’s DeepMind harnesses blockchain to transform health records

Posted: 21 March 2017 | By Darcie Thompson-Fields

DeepMind is planning to use a new technology based on bitcoin to improve health services by allowing hospitals to track what’s happening to personal data in real time.

The plan, called “Verifiable Data Audit”, will share some properties with blockchain, the technology that’s at the heart of the bitcoin digital currency. A blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a continuously growing list of ordered records called blocks. Each block contains a timestamp and a link to a previous block. What makes the technology so suited for use in currency is that by design, blockchains are resistant to modification of the data. Once recorded, data in a block cannot be altered retroactively. Artificial intelligence is used to manage the database autonomously.

Google’s DeepMind Health plans to use some of the properties of this technology to assist British National Health Service clinicians in predicting, diagnosing and preventing serious illness.

DeepMind will develop a digital ledger that automatically records every interaction with patient data. Each entry will record the fact that a piece of data has been used along with the reason why DeepMind gives the for instance of blood test data being checked against the NHS national algorithm to detect possible acute kidney injury.

DeepMind’s health ledger will use the blockchain style technology behind Bitcoin

Like blockchain the ledger will be append-only, so once a record of data use is added, it can’t later be erased. The ledger will also make it possible for third parties to verify that nobody has tampered with any of the entries. Given the sensitivity of health data, DeepMind is keen to address fears that data sharing has the potential to give DeepMind and ultimately Google, too much power over the NHS.

In a blog post, head of applied AI Mustafa Suleyman, along with head of security and transparency Ben Laurie, were keen to downplay the commonalities of Verifiable Data Audit and blockchain. Most blockchains require participants to carry out complex calculations, which requires energy usage that has huge associated costs.

DeepMind Health aims to avoid some of the wastefulness of blockchain and make it more efficient by using a cryptographic approach.

“We’ll build a dedicated online interface that authorised staff at our partner hospitals can use to examine the audit trail of DeepMind Health’s data use in real-time. It will allow continuous verification that our systems are working as they should, and enable our partners to easily query the ledger to check for particular types of data use” Suleyman wrote.

Although not technologically complete yet, DeepMind believes the proposal has the possibility to form the basis of a new model for data storage and logging in the NHS and has potential to span beyond healthcare.

“It’s really difficult for people to know where data has moved (right now), when, and under which authorised policy. Introducing a light of transparency under this process I think will be very useful to data controllers, so they can verify where their processes have used or moved or accessed data.” Sulleyman told the Guardian.

“That’s going to add technical proof to the governance transparency that’s already in place. The point is to turn that regulation into a technical proof.”

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