Computers can classify skin cancers as successfully as human experts, according to the latest research attempting to apply artificial intelligence to health.
The US-based researchers say the new system, which is based on image recognition, could be developed for smartphones, increasing access to screening and providing a low-cost way to check whether skin lesions are cause for concern.
“We hope that this is a first step towards early detection,” said Andre Esteva, an electrical engineering PhD student from Stanford University and co-author of the research.
According to the World Health Organisation, skin cancer accounts for one in every three cancers diagnosed worldwide, with global incidence on the rise.
In the UK alone, 131,772 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer were recorded in 2014. In the same year there were 15,419 new cases of the deadliest skin cancer, melanoma, making it the fifth most common cancer, according to Cancer Research UK.
As the disease is often initially spotted by a visual examination, Esteva teamed up with colleagues in fields ranging from dermatology to artificial intelligence to create a computer system that would aid screening.
Their approach, described in the journal Nature, is based on deep learning – a class of algorithms used for artificial intelligence. When fed with a large set of ready-sorted data these algorithms pick out and “learn” patterns and relationships. Once trained, the algorithms can then be used to categorise new, unsorted data.