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The tech industry and the search for a cancer cure

Nvidia, Intel, IBM and other Silicon Valley companies are making finding a cure a high priority.

Gabe Ginsburg / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

I’ve tracked the tech market for the past 35 years, and there is one major theme I have seen over and over again when it comes to the goals of many tech innovators. They believe and have faith that the technology they create has the possibility to change the world. I have frequently heard tech executives say how they think their inventions or technology are world-changing devices or services.

From a historical perspective, that is very true. Technologies like the Gutenberg press, the steam engine, Edison’s light bulbs, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone or more recent inventions like the semiconductor, PC and smartphones have indeed been world-changing in what they do and how they drive new industries and the world’s economies.

Steve Jobs was one of the most vocal on this topic; in many speeches, he talked about Apple’s goal to change the world. Some of his products, especially the iPod, iPhone and the iPad, have been world-changing devices in terms of how they expanded personal computing, communications and entertainment. Products like Facebook and Twitter have had a huge impact on connecting people around the world in ways we could not have imagined even 10 years ago.

Lately I have been wondering if Silicon Valley, with its innovative thinkers and problem-solving skills, took a stronger aim at some of the huge problems we have in health care and especially in finding cures for diseases like cancer, diabetes and other major illnesses, how this could impact the fight against life-threatening problems.

I think most of us either know of people who have had cancer or have it themselves and surely want a cure for this awful disease. Vice President Joe Biden’s son died from cancer, and Biden has devoted his life to what he calls a “moonshot” to try and find a cure. There has been great work and serious strides in the world of health science done to deal with cancer, but even with these advances, there is still no actual cure.

It turns out that Silicon Valley has been pretty active already. I recently found out about one of the newest initiatives of a major Silicon Valley company called Nvidia, which, along with key government and private organizations, has made finding a cure for cancer a high priority.

Nvidia recently announced that it is teaming up with the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy and several national laboratories on an initiative to accelerate cancer research. The research efforts include a focus on building an AI framework called CANDLE, for Cancer Distributed Learning Environment, which will provide a common discovery platform that brings the power of AI to the fight against cancer. CANDLE will be the first AI framework designed to change the way we understand cancer, providing data scientists around the world with a powerful tool against this disease.

One of Nvidia’s claims to fame is its incredible graphical processors, which help power some of the fastest supercomputers in the world. These processors are also at the heart of Nvidia’s major push around something called Artificial Intelligence Deep Learning. These processors can handle billions of transactions per second and are central to a new data-science technology used to mine data at its deepest levels, and use AI and deep learning to try to find answers to big problems.

I have known Nvidia’s founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang for 15 years, and he is one of the most energetic and visionary leaders in Silicon Valley. He is very passionate about deep learning and its potential impact on our world. “GPU deep learning has given us a new tool to tackle grand challenges that have, up to now, been too complex for even the most powerful supercomputers,” he said. “Together with the Department of Energy and the National Cancer Institute, we are creating an AI supercomputing platform for cancer research. This ambitious collaboration is a giant leap in accelerating one of our nation’s greatest undertakings, the fight against cancer.”

The cancer moonshot strategic computing partnership between the DOE and NCI to accelerate precision oncology includes three pilot projects that aim to provide a better understanding of how cancer grows; discover more effective, less toxic therapies than existing ones; and understand key drivers of their effectiveness outside the clinical trial setting, at the population level. Deep learning techniques are essential for each of these projects.

Nvidia is not the only tech company taking aim at the cancer “moonshot.” IBM’s Watson has joined with the Veterans Affairs to launch a public/private partnership to provide veterans who have cancer a better chance for recovery. Watson is the supercomputer that won the game show “Jeopardy,” and is one of the most powerful AI-based computers in the world.

Another of Silicon Valley’s giants, Intel, has invested heavily in AI and deep learning research, and is creating a new AI framework around their most powerful processors which will help power some of the biggest data projects in the world. In terms of cancer research, Intel has teamed up with the Oregon Health and Science Institute-Knight Cancer Center, the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to create a collaborative “cancer database” they will use to help advance the research on finding better ways to treat cancer, as well as someday find a cure.

Given Silicon Valley’s quest to change the world and its immense problem-solving skills, having the Valley turn its technology and skills to target these diseases perhaps can help speed up the search for treatments and, ultimately, cures for cancer, diabetes and other major health maladies.

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

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