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This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: Alexa, pass the scalpel?

Jessica Smith
Good morning from the Financial Times. Today is Thursday, September 16th. And this is your FT News Briefing.

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Jessica Smith
The US and the UK are going to help Australia build nuclear powered submarines to counter China. Canada’s prime minister called an early election, but his plan could backfire. Plus, Amazon is testing out voice assistant technology like Alexa in operating rooms. That’s just the start.

Dave Lee
What they’re doing with healthcare is kind of combining all these different parts of their business to kind of go at the healthcare business and the opportunity there in different ways.

Jessica Smith
We’ll talk more about Amazon’s plans to become ubiquitous in healthcare. I’m Jess Smith, in for Marc Filippino. And here’s the news you need to start your day.

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Jessica Smith
The Biden administration has launched another partnership to send a message to China. This time it’s with the UK and Australia, and a key part of the partnership is supporting Australia’s plan to build a fleet of nuclear submarines. One US official said the submarines are faster and stealthier than conventional submarines, and they can operate further from Australia. Now this comes at a time of growing tensions between the US and China over issues like the South China Sea and Taiwan. And next week, President Joe Biden hosts the leaders of Japan, India and Australia at the White House. That’s another security grouping designed to counter China and one that officials in Beijing have dubbed an Asian NATO.

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Jessica Smith
There’s an election in Canada next week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for it two years early. He figured he was in a good position to win a majority government that would help him finish the fight against Covid. He’d won praise for his handling of the pandemic. But Trudeau’s campaign hasn’t gone according to plan. Darrell Bricker is with the polling firm Ipsos, and he says most Canadians didn’t want an election during the pandemic.

Darrell Bricker
So people are really upset. The fact that we’re having this election and are taking it out on the prime minister.

Jessica Smith
Trudeau also seems to have underestimated his Conservative party opponent. Erin O’Toole has moderated his party’s line on climate change and fiscal conservatism. He also criticised Trudeau on foreign affairs, especially when it comes to China. And he’s managed to cut the prime minister’s lead to a precariously thin margin.

Darrell Bricker
Where we’ve ended up, though, is a situation in which the opposition parties, particularly the Conservative party, has actually an equally good chance of defeating them.

Jessica Smith
That’s Canadian pollster Darrell Bricker. He spoke to the FT’s Gideon Rachman. You can hear their entire conversation about the upcoming election in Canada in this week’s episode of the Rachman Review, which comes out every Thursday.

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Jessica Smith
When I think about healthcare technology, I think about a Fitbit or video conference with my doctor. I did a lot of that during the pandemic. But technology companies are moving into healthcare in much more profound ways. The FT’s Dave Lee has been looking into Amazon’s plans to build up its healthcare business, and he joins me now to talk more about that. Hi, Dave.

Dave Lee
Hi, Jess.

Jessica Smith
Dave, I have to ask you first about Alexa in the operating room. You described in your article how Amazon’s voice technology is now working alongside surgeons as they operate. Can you talk more about this?

Dave Lee
Yes, this is a pilot programme at Houston Methodist. It’s a network of eight hospitals. And what they’re doing is they’re adding voice control technology to the operating theatre. And what it means is, you know, if you’re a surgeon, there are various steps that you need to not only carry out, but also record as you do things. And the process of doing that is pretty time consuming. And often it requires, you know, added steps to make sure there’s no cross contamination if someone uses a computer, for example. And so, you know, what they’re trying to do with Alexa in the in the operating theatre is cut out some of that time and just sort of say that they’re doing things, say, OK, I’ve done this step. Now, please add that to the record. And what that does is it creates a permanent record. So if there’s any issues after the surgery, they can go back in and see when things were done, how things were done, and it’s all been taken down by voice. And at the same time, this technology is linked up to a screen in the operating theatre. So everyone that’s involved can see, you know, what’s coming up, what’s coming up next, what needs to be done running the surgery. So they see this is a very, very useful step.

Jessica Smith
But this technology in the operating room isn’t the only project Amazon has in the works. Can you talk a bit more about what other areas of healthcare Amazon is targeting?

Dave Lee
Yes, one of the remarkable things about Amazon’s healthcare strategy is that, of course, you know, Amazon is no longer just an ecommerce site. And it’s also as well as, you know, it’s got a cloud division, which is hugely powerful. And what they’re doing with healthcare is kind of combining all these different parts of their business to kind of go at the healthcare business and the opportunity there in different ways. So, for example, they launched a pharmacy late last year for mail order. They launched a diagnostics programme, which primarily right now is dealing with Covid. But that is gonna be expanded to to diagnose more illnesses in future. One of the big benefits Amazon has over some of the other companies that are involved is that Amazon in the US alone has more than a million workers. And so anything they can do on their own workers when it comes to, you know, offering certain services such as tele-health, which is another thing they’re doing with their workers, that already can be proven at scale because they’ve got so many workers themselves. When healthcare analysts look at their plans, they’re thinking, you know, watch out because Amazon knows how to do this at scale. And here it comes.

Jessica Smith
So, Dave, is there any other company that can rival Amazon in healthcare? I’m thinking maybe Google?

Dave Lee
Yes, I think the other technology companies can certainly rival certain aspects of what Amazon is doing. I don’t think any of the companies out there can kind of hit as many different aspects of healthcare as Amazon is doing. But, you know, you have Google, which has got you know, it has been for a long time working on lots of AI applications in healthcare. Microsoft as well, they have a huge cloud platform that’s the biggest competitor to AWS in cloud. They’re also working with a large number of hospitals. And indeed, you know, Google and Microsoft were quicker off the mark when it comes to partnering with healthcare networks. And so AWS is actually catching up with those other companies. But none of those competitors as of yet is able to offer quite the breadth that Amazon is able to do.

Jessica Smith
So given Amazon’s size and its breadth and also the scrutiny it’s been under, I would imagine there have to be sceptics or critics of what Amazon’s doing in healthcare. What are they saying?

Dave Lee
I think the critics come in a couple of forms. The first form is, you know, the existing players. You have online pharmacies already and you have tele-health companies already there putting on a brave face in it. In terms that I’ve heard before, when Amazon arrives in other industries where they’re saying, you know what, you know, almost the more the merrier. The more people get to use these services. They’re trying to say that, you know, the more popular this tech becomes, the better for them it’s going to be. However, behind closed doors, I’m sure they’re much more nervous. There’s also critics that say, you know, Amazon isn’t a healthcare company and this is an industry where, you know, the incumbents are powerful for a reason because they’ve got the expertise, they’ve got the history, they’ve got the networks in place. Amazon doesn’t really have that to the same degree. And then from a power perspective, I think a lot of people are just saying, well, what is Amazon’s ultimate ambition here? You know, how much of a healthcare player does it want to be? Only then when we see the specifics, will the criticisms about size and power really, can it come to the fore I think.

Jessica Smith
Dave Lee is our San Francisco correspondent, he covers Amazon for the FT. Thanks, Dave.

Dave Lee
Thanks, Jess.

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Jessica Smith
And before we go, we’ve been talking a lot about China’s crackdown on its powerful technology companies. One of the first companies to feel the sting was the huge ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing. Only days after it went public on the New York Stock Exchange in June, Chinese regulators banned the company from signing up new customers while they carried out a data security investigation, and Didi has suffered. Not only did its share price fall 40 per cent, but the number of users has plummeted. The FT recently saw some data from a firm that researches Chinese mobile users’ behaviour, and it found that Didi’s daily user numbers had fallen by 30 per cent. If investors in Didi are looking for more data from the company, they’re gonna have to wait. Didi hasn’t reported its second-quarter earnings to US shareholders, and it hasn’t said when it will do so.

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Jessica Smith
You can read more on all these stories at FT.com. This has been your daily FT News Briefing. Make sure you check back tomorrow for the latest business news.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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