Most of us use search engines to find the nearest Papa John’s or to find out some piece of throwaway information, do some shopping, or check the news. However, the power of Microsoft’s Bing search engine goes beyond these day to day queries and could even have the ability to save lives.
Microsoft researchers say that the learning abilities of search engines to remember queries and see patterns in them can have profound results. One such case where Microsoft’s Bing was used to change lives was when it was able to deduct from search histories that some users had pancreatic cancer. Dr. Eric Horvitz, one of the researchers said that the engine achieved this before the patients were diagnosed.
“We asked ourselves ‘If we heard the whispers of people online, would it provide strong evidence or a clue that something’s going on?’[…] I think the mainstream medical literature has been resistant to these kinds of studies and this kind of data. We’re hoping that this stimulates quite a bit of interesting conversation.”
Tech companies use their search engines to discover trends for marketing purposes, so why not for something more significant? Google previously used its search engine to track the flu virus as it spread across the United States, although to limited effect.
Bing’s cancer diagnosing achievement is discussed in a published paper in The Journal of Oncology Practice. The paper shows how the engine found search patterns from sufferers of pancreatic cancer, using anonymized data to reach a diagnostic conclusion. Bing used the frequency and symptoms being searched individually to make a wider data image where the user was experiencing symptoms akin to pancreatic cancer.
Indeed, Microsoft’s search tool could even determine through the frequency of search which users were simply curious about the disease, and which were actually concerned enough to be potentially suffering from it. Researchers were able to successfully identify 5% to 15% of cancer cases.
Microsoft is clear to point out that its test was in a limited field and using specific algorithms, the company says it is a proof of concept to show the power of Bing. However, further research and accuracy could lead to search engines becoming an important diagnostic tool and giving health advice.