China’s largest online search engine, Baidu, has launched an AI health chatbot that can answer medical questions and suggest diagnoses in real-time.

Called Melody the medical assistant, the chatbot builds on the Baidu Doctor app, an app which launched in China in 2015 that allows patients to ask doctors direct questions, schedule appointments and look up health information.

The introduction of Melody aims to enhance the online experience provided by the Baidu Doctor app by making it faster and closer to a human conversation.

Melody uses advanced deep learning and natural language processing (NLP) technologies to respond to patients with context-relevant questions to clarify information such as symptom frequency or duration, and then compares the response with Baidu’s database of medical information obtained from sources such as medical textbooks, websites, search queries and information provided by doctors.

After crunching the medical data obtained, Melody then suggests a possible diagnosis to a doctor who can then recommend the next suitable medical steps.

The advancement of AI technology is fast becoming a verifiable solution to the shortage of doctors and healthcare professionals globally. Tech giants Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Samsung are all reportedly investing heavily in this area, and even the developers behind South Africa’s mHealth champion, MomConnect, are planning to expand their maternal health service to Facebook Messenger with the launch of a new chatbot.

“I’m seeing just the beginnings of what will be a major trend of AI systems in healthcare,” said Chief Scientist at Baidu Research, Andrew Ng. Ng is part of a 1,000 person team dedicated to working on AI which, according to Ng, is a top priority of the company.

Over time Melody’s functionality will improve as it has more conversations with patients and doctors. However, according to Ng, AI such as Melody is a long way from being able to make diagnoses directly to patients and replacing human physicians.

Melody is currently available in China and, according to Ng, Baidu is in talks with healthcare organisations in the US and Europe for expansion.

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