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Big Tech Is Taking on Diabetes

By Danny Vena – Updated Apr 25, 2017 at 4:18PM

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The combination of big tech and healthcare may be an unlikely matchup, but as these collaborations become more prevalent, patients will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

When, Inc. (AMZN -0.07%) introduced Alexa, the voice-activated digital assistant, in late 2014, it probably didn't anticipate the reception she would get. Alexa has her foundations in artificial intelligence and powers the Echo, Dot, and Tap smart speakers that have become some of the top-selling items on the e-commerce giant's website. The company hasn't disclosed figures, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimates that 8.2 million U.S. consumers have purchased the devices, and analysts at Morgan Stanley believe that closer to 11 million units had been sold even before the holidays. 

Amazon released a skills kit to developers early in Alexa's career, and she currently supports over 10,000 commands, from ordering pizza, to playing music, to providing daily history lessons. Amazon even equipped Alexa with a Skill Finder feature to provide users with a "skill of the day."

And just when you thought there were no frontiers left for the digital diva to conquer, Amazon announced the Alexa Diabetes Challenge.

An Echo smart speaker positioned on a kitchen counter.

Alexa voice-enabled solutions for diabetes? Image source: Amazon.

Alexa-enabled diabetes solutions?

Amazon has partnered with pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc. (MRK 1.59%) and is challenging developers to create Alexa-powered solutions to improve the lives of people managing Type 2 diabetes. According to Amazon, 27.5 million people in the United States suffer from the disease, and the company believes that Alexa is the key to helping them manage it.

As an incentive, Amazon is offering $25,000 and 10,000 credits for Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon's cloud-computing operation, for up to five finalists to develop their concept. They will then participate in a virtual accelerator, and the winning entry will be awarded a grand prize of $125,000. Amazon and Merck are also exploring ways to leverage AWS and artificial intelligence to support people with chronic diseases such as diabetes. 

Watson takes on diabetes management

Amazon isn't the only big tech company providing solutions for those with diabetes. International Business Machines Corporation (IBM -0.25%) is working with Medtronic plc (MDT 1.57%) "to develop a new generation of personalized diabetes management solutions." IBM's Watson, the company's AI-enabled Jeopardy!-winning cognitive supercomputer, ingested data from health insurance records, 10,000 anonymous electronic patient medical records, and population data in an attempt to develop real-time personalized care.

The result was Sugar.IQ, a personal assistant capable of detecting patterns of behavior and predicting diabetic events hours before they happen. Watson is also hard at work reviewing 66 years of data from the American Diabetes Association to build apps to help those afflicted.

Apple's got a secret

CNBC is reporting that Apple Inc. (AAPL 1.92%) has been secretly working to develop non-invasive sensors that continuously monitor blood sugar levels and could be a feature in a future version of Apple Watch. The report indicates the company has a small team of biomedical engineers working on the issue and that the efforts are sufficiently advanced to warrant feasibility trials. The report also indicates that Apple has hired consultants to navigate the regulatory process. Little else is known about the project, and Apple has not publicly acknowledged its efforts. 

Bottom line

Advances in technology have paved the way for big data applications in the field of medicine. As companies develop even greater caches of data, the potential for groundbreaking impact in medicine increases.

Amazon will probably not enjoy any revenue from its investment, but the positive publicity alone will be worth far more than any money the company spends. 

Danny Vena owns shares of Amazon and Apple. Danny Vena has the following options: long January 2018 $85 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $90 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Medtronic. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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