- China’s Vast Database of Personal Information
- The Project to Reinvent Medicine, Transport, Finance, Banking….and Everything Else
It’s the single most intriguing and future-filled AI company on my radar.
Not least because it is at the epicentre of China’s determined and accelerating drive to become the world’s superpower in precision medicine.
Many of the most powerful Chinese leaders see precision medicine, and within it Genetics, as the next trillion dollar industry.
They are determined that China will become its global HQ, giving it similar benefits in the 21st century to the power and wealth that accrued to the US through its early leadership and dominance of the internet.
The company in question is iCarbonX.
Founded by Jun Wang, the co-founder of genomics powerhouse Shenzhen BGI, iCarbonx has raised at least $600 million in funding. Tencent is a heavy investor. As is China Development Bank <the State’s top policy bank>.
The company aims to create a universal health platform, which, of course, it may not achieve.
What’s really fascinating however, is just how much personal information iCarbonX is collecting to advance this project.
What we have here is a partnership between a government, a Tech Titan and an emerging genetics giant, drawing information on deeply personal habits to create a central database like no other.
Wang is confident that he can get samples and data from one million people in five years. This includes clinical data collected in trials — biological molecules, the microbiome.
It also includes data on pain levels, sleep, fatigue, stress and eating habits. Wang calls this ‘lifetime data’. And the publicly stated mission is to use this information to develop groundbreaking research in the cancer, neurodegenerative disease and diabetes.
Why China could dominate Genetics
The iCarbonX project is a tall order. But it’s one that is worth pursuing in the context of China’s ambitions in precision medicine.
Clearly there will be no lack of Development Funding for iCarbonX or indeed for the other strategic Chinese upstarts: Novogene, WuxiAppTeach and the listed BeiGene.
The main competition will come come from Japan and S.Korea. But they lack anything approaching China’s test-bed population scale and ethnic diversity for research.
China has a regulation lite environment. It has vast genetic and epigenetic databases to mine and access to the world’s fastest supercomputers.
At the same time it suffers none of the crippling delays suffered in the US by the FDA’s processes. Chinese insurance companies even allow biotech companies to recoup R&D expenses.
And there are very few hangups about experimenting with sensitive information…
Three months ago, iCarbonX showcased its Meum smart phone app, which enables users to enter their meals and daily activity, as well as any physiological or vital-sign data, offering advice on what to eat, when to sleep and how active they should be.
Meum, of course, leant heavily on input from Tencent, whose WeChat is the world’s premier smart phone app bar none.
Meanwhile, iCarbonX has spent $400 million acquiring US start-ups, HealthTell, PatientsLike Me and Israel’s Image Vision Technologies.
Introducing Citizen Scores…
The bigger picture story, however, is the project to collect and structure a vast database that can drive frontier industries for the next decade.
And this is a project which is not limited to personalised medicine. The Chinese Tech Titans are also collecting vast streams of information on every type of habit – what people say, buy, eat, travel, think and want. And they are busy structuring all this information so that it can be fed it to rapidly improving AI.
There is a lot of hype about AI, much of it justified. But for now, what AI needs is useful data. It needs to learn, to be trained how to recognise patterns by itself.
And so the Chinese are creating a database that is well structured, constantly refreshed and very comprehensive.
This database will be vital in driving modernisation efforts in healthcare, finance and many other industries.
It is part of the reason why Alibaba and Tencent are making such inroads into financial services. They are becoming one-stop-shops for society, learning and directing behaviour across all their platforms.
Crucially, these Titans benefit from their partnership with the Chinese state.
In fact, this data will tally nicely with the ‘Citizen Score’ that every Chinese citizen will soon receive. A score that will partly determine under what conditions a citizen may get loans, jobs and travel visas. The plan will vacuum up court, police, banking, tax and employment records. Doctors, teachers, local governments and businesses could even be scored by citizens for their professionalism and probity.
Jun Wang’s insistence that iCarbonX “can mine health data faster, cheaper, from a wider variety of sources and at a scale well beyond its rivals” is very credible.
And I think it’s important to recognise that advances in genetics or finance or transport, no longer happen in isolation.