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Independents' Day

Babylon launches 'troll' attack on doctor who tested AI app

Babylon, the provider of GP at Hand, has labelled a doctor who tested its AI app and reported the results on social media as a ‘troll’.

In a 700-word+ statement, it describes how a ‘Twitter troll’ spends ‘hundreds of hours conducting 2,400 tests’ on its chatbot function app, which allows patients to answer questions about their symptoms and then gives ‘treatment advice’, according to its site.

It claims that Dr David Watkins, a consultant oncologist at The Royal Marsden who goes by the name @DrMurphy11 on Twitter, ‘posted over 6,000 misleading attacks'.

However, Dr Watkins told Pulse that he simply inputted ‘red flag presentations and common issues’, such as colds, chest pain and breathlessness, and found that the app didn’t always give correct advice.

Pulse carried out an investigation last year on the growing influence of medical apps, and found that they often took a more cautious approach.

Babylon, which markets itself as ‘the UK’s leading digital health provider’, claims: ‘@DrMurphy11 has trolled us at every turn. 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. 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.

‘As a scientific organisation, we are all about evidence.’

Babylon’s post continued: ‘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.'

Speaking to Pulse, Dr Watkins said he first raised concerns about the AI-based site in 2017. When issues reached a ‘critical’ level in May 2018, with ‘dangerous flaws’ ‘missing red flag presentations’, he requested a meeting with Babylon and regulatory authorities, but this was not acknowledged.

In February 2019, he continued to identify potential risk, and again flagged this with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

He received a response from MHRA in August 2019, but felt the necessary measures were not being implemented to protect patients from harm.

Dr Watkins added: ‘As an anonymous entity, your voice isn’t as strong, in this situation’.

He then decided to go public over social media.

However, he was subsequently approached by a Babylon employee, who was also a fellow at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM).

He said: ‘I had what I felt were constructive conversations with Babylon’s leadership team,’ at Monday's digital health conference at the RSM, where he and Babylon publicly met for the first time.

‘I raised my concerns with the flaws in the chatbot being unaddressed, in conjunction with their overblown hype.

‘If a chatbot is just flawed, fair enough, but when they’ve gone around and said: "this is 100% safe, this is as good as a doctor, it can diagnose" – you can’t have it both ways.

‘I had expected, after those discussions, a more mature response from Babylon, but they have gone back to trying to silence the voice of the person with concerns, discrediting them and being dismissive of criticism.’

Dr Watkins continued: ‘I consider it to be mildly threatening, in terms of a company which says: "raise concerns about us, and we’ll go after you".

‘I’m a jobbing doctor, I have no associations with health tech or AI – I come at this from a perspective of patient safety, and the one thing that stifles patient safety is people not feeling that they can speak up freely when they’ve got concerns.

‘How are people working within the company meant to speak up, if this is what they see as the behaviour of the company?’

Looking ahead, Dr Watkins believes questions must be asked of why the regulatory authorities took so long to address the issue, and why Babylon were ‘allowed to go ahead with such bold promotional claims, despite concerns being raised’.

He planned since last year to reveal his identity at Monday’s event, where Babylon representatives presented before he did, in which they mentioned the ‘Twitter troll’ claim.

‘So it was clearly something they had anticipated’, said Dr Watkins.

Babylon’s unparalleled post has created significant discussion within the medical community.

Christina Farr, of American business news site CNBC, tweeted: ‘Calling a critic a “troll” because they’ve uncovered evidence of problems that led to the company *fixing them* and making their technology safer for patients is another level.'


Readers' comments (17)

  • Is it also not appropriate that Babylon publishes, in an open way, all the testing it has done for it's AI bot. It seems mental that they challenge a whistleblower to reveal data that they are not willing to release themselves.

    That is full disclosure of every test with all data available, not just the summary or final whitewashed summary.

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  • ‘Calling a critic a “troll” because they’ve uncovered evidence of problems that led ...’
    A frightening summary.

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  • The newsnight head to head this week didn't leave me any the wiser as to how safe this AI is, but again Baylon's representative was not able to adequately answer any of the reasonable questions asked by this Dr, which are reiterated above.

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  • I too watched the Newsnight head to head and was disappointed with the Babylon representatives tone which I perceived was too aggressive. If the chatbot is not picking up basic red flags appropriately I would have thought that he would be only too pleased to work with Dr Watkins to sort out any difficulties. Babylon seem to be too defensive.

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  • Vinci Ho

    ’’You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’’
    Abraham Lincoln

    More importantly, who are YOU?

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  • ‘As a scientific organisation, we are all about evidence.’
    So it’s not about the money, money, money...
    If you weren’t such a bunch of lying creepy bxxtards we might believe you.

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  • Utter creeps

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  • they interviewed a Babylon representative in Australia.... it didnt look good for them..... its clear it doesnt deliver what they say it does..... isn't as good as a doctor and it it ALL about Money Money Money....its about skimming off the NHS the same way they tried to over Hitchingbrooke, but failed in a very public manner

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  • "DecorumEst | Salaried GP26 Feb 2020 3:11pm
    ‘Calling a critic a “troll” because they’ve uncovered evidence of problems that led "

    - You could say that about most dissident voices, that's why free speech is important... What did the Home Office report into the grooming gangs conclude that they've so far refused to release? Maybe that Tommy Robinson is right?...

    Angus, and Curious. Don't blame Babylon... If the govt wasn't so keen at throwing money at them they wouldn't exist... Its the state deciding using taxpayer funds as such is 'well spent'(despite in this and other cases, a potential lack of objective quality control). You, individually, aren't happy to spend your own money this way, why would you be any keener to hand it over to the state to skim off some, THEN spend in this way? And before you start, Angus, Labour wants to borrow, tax and spend MORE :)

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  • @ Christopher Ho | GP Partner/Principal27 Feb 2020 1:09am

    Your post is incoherent.

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