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Millions of people go blind every year from a preventable eye disease caused by diabetes. Known as diabetic retinopathy, it is devastating to its sufferers and takes an ophthalmologist to diagnose. This is a real problem in a country like India, which has a huge population and a high prevalence of diabetes but not enough ophthalmologists.

“India is set to emerge as the diabetic capital of the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 31.7m people were affected by diabetes mellitus in India in the year 2000,” says a 2016 study in the Indian Journal of Ophthalmology.

“This figure is estimated to rise to 79.4m by 2030, the largest number of any nation in the world. Almost two-thirds of all type-2 and almost all type-1 diabetics are expected to develop diabetic retinopathy.”

What if you could teach a computer – through machine learning – how to recognize the symptoms of this diabetic retinopathy, much like researchers at Google have done. Better yet, what if the answer lies in artificial intelligence. AI computers are already learning how to identify objects for Google's photographic recognition software.

“We were able to take something that's core to Google — classifying cats and dogs and faces — and apply it to another sort of problem,” says Lily Peng, the Google lead running the project, who is also a physician and biomedical engineer.

Peng published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2016 that reported AI could recognise diabetic retinopathy at the same pace as an ophthalmologist.

This project is one of the best examples of the nascent field of AI, which is seen as the next evolution – not only of computing but of work too. Technically it is better to think of it as machine learning because these are still process-oriented computers which are performing and learning tasks. The word 'intelligence' implies so much more, and no computer has evolved to that point yet.

“Today these are handcrafted by machine-learning scientists and, literally, only a few thousand scientists around the world can do this,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said recently.

Google has changed its mission from the “mobile first” mantra, espoused by former CEO, Eric Schmidt, to Pichai’s “AI first” as it shifts to focus on this new major trend.

With this new technology, the eyesight of millions could be saved through early detection of the disease. It's tech progress we can be proud of.

Watch the video below to see more of what machine learning is and how it works.

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