Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is considered one of the world’s most prominent experts in artificial intelligence (AI). He is the author of eight books, contributor of hundreds of papers, and speaks often at leading conferences. He is also a leader in the AI industry, previously the president of Google China, and founder of Microsoft Research China. He now serves as the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, which manages $1.7 billion in investments. This is not a man who gets easily confused.
And then he was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma.
In his latest book “AI Superpowers”, Lee describes his resolve to deeply understand his medical situation: “as a trained scientist whose life hang in the balance, I couldn’t help trying to better understand the disease and quantify my chances of survival. Scouring the internet, I devoured all the information I could find about lymphoma: possible causes, cutting-edge treatments, and long term survival rates. Through my reading, I came to understand how doctors classify the various stages of lymphoma.” Lee’s focus was first given to the staging of his Lymphoma.
“In the depths of my own research, I found a research paper that did quantify the predictive power of these alternate metrics. The paper is from a team of researchers at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy, and it analyzed fifteen different variables, identifying the five features that, considered together, most strongly correlated to five-year survival. These features included some traditional masseurs (such as bone marrow involvement) but also less intuitive measures (are any tumors over 6 cm in diameter? Are the hemoglobin levels below 12 grams per deciliter? Is the patient over 60?). The paper then provides average survival rates based on how many of those features a patient exhibited.”
Being an AI expert, Lee understood that the more data you can take into consideration, the better and more accurate would be the outcome, but arguably not even Lee anticipated the difference. In his words: “and there it was: while the stage IV diagnosis from the hospital meant a five-year survival rate of just 50%, the more detailed and scientific rubric of the research paper bumped that number up to 89%…I kept going back to check and double-check the numbers, and with each confirmation I grew more ecstatic. Nothing inside my body had changed, but I felt that I had been pulled back from the abyss.”
Lee’s candid description of his fight against cancer singles out a lesson that might be relevant to all of us. It relates to the importance of research and its importance for making better medical decisions. The notion that doctors have clear answers in the form of diagnosis, prognosis, treatment is too simplistic and doesn’t align with how the science of medicine is generated nor with how science play differently with diverse patients.
While there are many similar cancer cases, there are no two patients alike, and this is where statistics based on patient’s parameters could make a big difference.
Though not many can demonstrate the kind of scientific skills Lee has shown, and far less can combine such skills in the field of medicine, personal research is becoming more important as research continue to evolve. New features, new correlations, better data, advanced algorithms and modern technology enhance the science of medicine on a daily basis and provide new opportunities for patients. Studying these advancements is a profession for itself. No one can expect a doctor, as good as she may be, to master all of these progressions on her own, and no one can expect the doctor to adequately treat her patients when she is out on conferences or doing her research.
This is where personal medical research proves to be essential to further advance the practice of medicine for the benefit of patients all over the world.
As for Lee, fortunately this story has a happy ending. He went on to receive therapy and his cancer is now under remission. No one really knows whether the results would have been different had he not insisted on carrying out his own thorough research.