The New York Times reports that Microsoft researchers have been able to identify internet users suffering from pancreatic cancer, according to the analysis of large sample of search queries. The study, published in the Journal of Oncology Practice, says the scientists had hoped the work they’ve done can lead to early detection of cancer.
Researchers at Microsoft concur that search engines have the potential to observe its searchers and their search history, and warm them of diseases or physical illnesses before they are ever diagnosed.
This is accomplished through parsing anonymous data to find clear search patterns between those suffering from pancreatic cancer. The researchers looked at patterns such as order, frequency, and symptoms being searched for to determine: which users were experiencing actual cancer-related symptoms, which users were simply curious or anxious about the disease, and those who are actually suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Horvitz, one of Microsoft’s researchers, states:
“We asked ourselves, ‘If we heard the whispers of people online, would it provide strong evidence or a clue that something’s going on? […] The question, ‘What might we do? Might there be a Cortana for health some day?’”
The researches claim to be able to identify 5 to 15 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer with false positive rates as low as 1 in 100,000. The results from this limited trial are encouraging, especially if they can be repeatedly reproduced with greater accuracy. One day we might see search engines offering health-related services. For more information read the full study here in the Journal of Oncology Practice.