Google’s Head of AI Talks About the Future of the EHR

Eric J. Topol, MD: Hello. This is Eric Topol with Medicine and the Machine, with my co-host, Abraham Verghese. This is a special edition for us, to speak with one of the leading lights of artificial intelligence (AI) in the world, Jeff Dean, who heads up Google AI. So, Jeff, welcome to our podcast.

Jeff Dean, PhD: Thank you for having me.

Topol: You have now been at Google for 22 years. In a recent book by Cade Metz (a New York Times tech journalist) called Genius Makers, you are one of the protagonists.

I didn’t know this about you, but you grew up across the globe. Your parents took you from Hawaii, where you were born, to Somalia, where you helped run a refugee camp during your middle school years. As a high school senior in Georgia where your father worked at the CDC, you built a software tool for them that helped researchers collect disease data, and nearly four decades later it remains a staple of epidemiology across the developing world. I’m going to stop there because I didn’t know this, and there’s this thing called a pandemic. Can you help us?

Dean: My father was an epidemiologist, so we traveled around, and my mom studied medical anthropology. That combination of careers, plus a bit of wanderlust, led to going to new places, and I was an only child so I went along for the ride. We ended up living in lots of different places. I did a high school internship at the CDC, writing some software for outbreak investigations during epidemics. Epidemiologists use some very specialized statistics that most statistical packages don’t support very well, and it’s important to provide software that can be run all around the world on the relatively low-end computers at that time. So I started writing software that would provide the right kind of data collection and analysis tools that could be run in a fairly lightweight way by epidemiologists all around the world.

This was before the internet, so to distribute it, people would show up with floppy disks and I’d put the software on it. I would make copies and teach people how to use it, and it propagated from there. And it’s still my seventh or eighth most-cited work.