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Now there’s an app for that

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ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) can sometimes be put to rather whimsical uses. In 2012 Google announced that one of its computers, after watching thousands of hours of YouTube videos, had trained itself to identify cats. Earlier this year a secretive AI firm called DeepMind, bought by Google in 2014, reported in Nature that it had managed to train a computer to play a series of classic video games, often better than a human could, using nothing more than the games’ on-screen graphics.

But the point of such diversions is to illustrate that, thanks to a newish approach going by the name of “deep learning”, computers increasingly possess the pattern-recognition skills—identifying faces, interpreting pictures, listening to speech and the like—that were long thought to be the preserve of humans. Researchers, from startups to giant corporations, are now planning to put AI to work to solve more serious problems.

One such organisation is the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF). The disease in the charity’s sights is diabetic retinopathy, one of the many long-term complications of diabetes. It is caused by…

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