A employee uses his mobile phone as he walks past the company logo of Baidu at its headquarters in Beijing, August 5, 2010. REUTERS/Barry Huang/File Photo

Baidu, the largest search engine in China, has confirmed it will dissolve its healthcare department to focus on introducing artificial intelligence (AI) into this area, Sina Technology reported on Thursday.

Two programs will be added to its AI arm – “Thumb Doctor” and “Intelligent Little e”. Thumb Doctor is an online platform where real experts answer people’s questions about medical symptoms, while Intelligent Little e is a chatbot project that helps provide instant diagnoses.

The content production team will move into the search engine department. While the rest of the business in the former healthcare department will be shut down, according to a company announcement released on Thursday at noon.

“Axing the department doesn’t mean Baidu will stop exploring the field of medical care,” Li Yanhong, the CEO of Baidu, said during a Q&A session at the China Entrepreneurs Forum that opened on Wednesday night, officially acknowledge the change. “Baidu is aiming to participate in more upstream areas, like gene detection and new drugs R&D.”

With big potential in the medical care market on the horizon, Baidu’s shift into “more upstream areas” depends on artificial intelligence, says Li.

Li shared his understanding of how AI technology could combine with medical care at the 3rd World Internet Conference in November last year.

According to Li, the first level of this combination is the O2O (or online to offline) intelligent queuing system. This means people make a hospital appointment online, which eliminates the need to queue for hours to register with a doctor. The second level is an intelligent diagnostic system, which allows a chatbot to analyze symptoms to help doctors make better diagnoses.

Baidu Doctor, an app developed by the company in 2015, already offers appointment bookings and self-diagnosis. It seems the company is already heading toward the third and fourth level, which, as Li said, is precision medicine based on gene analysis and new drugs R&D.

Li thinks artificial intelligence will play an important role in analysing the result of gene sequencing, so as to help identify rare and common diseases in advance. The technology is also expected to simulate the efficacy of new drugs, so as to lower the cost and period of R&D.

However, medical care has been a sensitive sector for the search engine giant since the death of Wei Zexi in April 2016.

Wei was a 21-year-old college student who died after receiving experimental treatment for a rare form of cancer (synovial sarcoma) at a hospital he learned about from a promoted search result on Baidu.

The company has since been criticized for its pay-for-placement results that had influenced Wei’s medical choices and delayed proper treatment.

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