In June 2017, Microsoft launched AI for Earth, a $50 million program that’s provided cloud-based tools and services to dozens of startups working to protect the planet. Subsequently, the Seattle tech giant expanded the scope of its “AI for good” work with AI for Accessibility (in May 2018),  AI for Humanitarian Action (in September 2018), and AI for Cultural Heritage (July 2019), all of which are a part of a $165 million, five-year commitment to teams tackling some of society’s toughest issues.

Building on this momentum and burgeoning partner ecosystem, Microsoft today announced a $40 million fifth program pillar aimed at empowering researchers and organizations to address challenges in health: AI for Health. It will focus on three core areas:

  • Quest for discovery: Accelerating medical research to advance prevention, diagnoses
    and treatment of diseases.
  • Global health insights: Increasing our shared understanding of mortality and longevity to
    protect against global health crises.
  • Health equity: Reducing health inequity and improving access to care for underserved
    populations.

At an event on Microsoft’s Redmond campus this morning, Microsoft president Brad Smith, corporate vice president of health Peter Lee, and chief data analytics officer John Kahan detailed the new AI for Health program, which will run for five years and operate via new partnerships as well as existing collaborations with organizations like the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems (IRIS), and the Novartis Foundation. AI for Health will also see efforts with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the international development organization BRAC, and nonprofit health organization PATH deepened to propel advancements in maternal mortality, tuberculosis treatment, pediatric cancer, and related fields.

“We look forward to working with researchers, academics, nonprofits, health industry professionals and policymakers around the world as we accelerate research and insights,” wrote Smith in a blog post. “Together, we can improve the health of people and communities globally.”

Microsoft has a number of health care ventures ongoing, including a partnership with Hyderabad-based L V Prasad Eye Institute that seeks to derive insights from data sets of patients with vision impairments and eye diseases. More recently, it launched Microsoft Healthcare, a push to create cloud-stored patient profiles and tap AI to analyze data, and Healthcare New Experiences and Technologies (NExT), which serves as an umbrella program for various projects related to health care.

Microsoft in 2019 brought new capabilities to Microsoft Teams, its unified communications platform, that enable clinicians and practitioners to collaborate in a secure hub. A health care bot service designed to help organizations create AI-powered assistants and chatbots launched alongside it, with features like a medical dictionary and a built-in symptom checker plus integrations with health systems such as electronic medical records. So too did an API for health record sharing — Azure API — that lets health systems talk to each other without running afoul of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Elsewhere, Microsoft partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and DNAnexus, a genomic data management platform Microsoft helped to finance, to launch Microsoft Genomics, a service backed by its Azure cloud platform that provides tools for genome analysis. And it recently announced it’s working with Ochsner Health System to develop a platform to predict patient outcomes using electronic medical record system provider Epic’s capabilities and Azure. Health IT vendors like Allscripts and SnapMD now also offer customers the option to purchase select platforms on Azure.

Other past and present projects include Empower MD, which listens and learns from what doctors say in order to cut down on unnecessary note-taking, and InnerEye, which uses AI to build tools for the automatic analysis of three-dimensional radiological images. In fact, between 2013 and 2017, an Ernst & Young analysis found that Microsoft filed 73 patents related to health care, most of which focused on developing AI and patient monitoring capabilities.

“[The AI for Health] program is underpinned with a strong foundation of privacy, security, and ethics, and was developed in collaboration with leading health experts who are driving important medical initiatives,” wrote Smith. “AI for Health is a philanthropic initiative that complements our broader work in Microsoft Healthcare. Through AI for Health, we will support specific nonprofits and academic collaboration with Microsoft’s leading data scientists, access to best-in-class AI tools and cloud computing, and select cash grants.”

Microsoft isn’t the only company setting aside money for organizations tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges with AI. In May, Google awarded $25 million in global impact grants — an extension of Google’s ongoing AI for Social Good program, which provides flood forecasting to communities in India and is researching how to provide speech recognition for more people with disabilities — to recipients including New York City’s fire department and scientists in Uganda tracking air quality with sensors attached to mopeds.