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Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Google on Tuesday announced new health initiatives and partnerships at its annual event called “The Check Up.” The Google Health team shared updates on features coming to search, tools for building health apps, and the latest in artificial intelligence-powered health research.

During the event, the company discussed new partnerships to help develop AI-assisted ultrasound, cancer treatment and tuberculosis screenings, but there was a particular mood around the latest version of its medical large language model called Med-PaLM.

Google first introduced Med-PaLM at the end of last year. It is designed to provide high-quality answers to medical questions. Med-PaLM was the first AI system to successfully obtain a passing score, or more than 60%, on multiple-choice questions similar to those used in US medical licensing exams.

The company said the second iteration of the technology, Med-PaLM 2, consistently performed at an “expert” level on medical examination questions. Med-PaLM 2 has reached more than 85% accuracy and has obtained 18% higher results than previous results.

Dr Alan Karthikesalingam, head of research at Google Health, said the company is also testing Med-PaLM’s responses against responses from real doctors and clinics. He said Med-PaLM’s responses are evaluated for factual accuracy, bias and potential for harm.

Karthikesalingam showed controlled examples – the demo was not live – of how Med-PaLM 2 can answer questions such as “what are the first warning signs of pneumonia?” and “can incontinence be cured?” In some cases, Med-PaLM 2’s responses were on par with, and even more detailed than, responses provided by physicians. However, in other cases Med-PaLM 2’s responses were not as accurate.

“You can tell from this kind of work that we’re still learning,” Karthikesalingam said during the event.

Given the sensitive nature of medical information, Karthikesalingam said it may be a while before this technology is at the fingertips of the average consumer. He said it is important to innovate responsibly and in a controlled environment.

Google will continue to work with researchers and experts on Med-PaLM, and Karthikesalingam said the company will share more updates about it in the future.

“The potential here is huge,” he said, “but it’s critical that real-world applications are explored responsibly and ethically.”