British AI chatbot and virtual care company Babylon is used to getting shade from the public and the medical community alike. But recently it went a step further to strike back at one of its most prominent critics.
For years, a Twitter user under the handle of @DrMurphy11 has posted his encounters with Babylon's tool based on hypothetical situations. On the whole his tweets have been critical of the chatbot and highlight inaccuracies and issues among its responses. Last night he went public on the BBC as Dr. David Watkins, a consultant and oncologist.
Babylon fired back at the tweets by posting details of @DrMurphy11’s searches publicly on Twitter. The company reported that Watkins spent the equivalent of five weeks testing the system and ran 2,400 tests. According to the company, he raised issues with less than 100 test results.
“At every stage, we have attempted to start a positive conversation with this anonymous person. We have invited him in to start a dialogue, to test our AI and to meet with the senior doctors who build our products,” the public statement from Babylon wrote. “We have corresponded with him openly and honestly when he has brought issues to our attention. We have repeatedly opened our doors, but revealingly he prefers to troll on Twitter. He refused to meet us and instead posted over 6,000 misleading attacks.”
The release ends with Babylon offering Watkins a way to connect with its team.
“So today we’re making a big offer: @DrMurphy11 now that you have stepped out from behind your computer, why not be part of an open, independent analysis of your AI testing: publish the entirety of your work, and let the totality of your data be assessed by any objective expert.”
WHY IT MATTERS
This release of data has lead to a wave of backlash against Babylon on Twitter. Some called the company's release “bullying”, while others pointed out the value in Watkins' work.
“It is very strange for @babylonhealth to describe someone as a 'Twitter troll' when that person is doing them a substantial service (for free) by identifying deficient algorithms,” Twitter user @Melichior wrote.
The move has also called into question the handling of user’s data and privacy — in particular in the age of tightening data regulations like GDPR.
“There are other big issues about data and confidentiality of users here,” Twitter user @Mgtmccartney wrote.
MobiHealthNews reached out to Babylon for comment on the ethics of sharing a user’s data and the considerations it took before sharing. In reply, the company reiterated that the data was related to hypothetical scenarios, and that it would not repeat such actions with legitimate personal health data.
“If safety related claims are made about our technology, our medical professionals are required to look into these matters to ensure the accuracy and safety of our products," a spokesperson for Babylon told MobiHealthNews in an email statement. "In the case of the recent use data that was shared publicly, it is clear given the volume of use that this was theoretical data (forming part of an accuracy test and experiment) rather than a genuine health concern from a patient. Given the use volume and the way data was presented publicly, we felt that we needed to address accuracy and use information to reassure our users. The data shared by us was non-personal statistical data, and Babylon has complied with its data protection obligations throughout. Babylon does not publish genuine individualized user health data.”
THE LARGER TREND
This isn’t the first time Babylon has come under fire for its research. Last year saw a case where a head-to-head comparison in which the service triumphed over live doctors was highly contested by professional groups, and it wasn’t long before NHS officials began delaying rollouts of the GP at Hand app due to patient safety concerns.
However, the virtual health company is growing. News broke late last year that the company was set to launch in the US. This comes after Babylon’s gargantuan summer funding round, which was led by Saudi royals. As a part of this funding the company said it would expand to the Middle East and China alongside North America. The company has already seen rollouts in Rwanda and and Canada, as well as in its home country via longstanding deployments with the UK’s National Health Service.