Doctor Watson, I Presume
IBM’s Watson supercomputer ushers in an era of cognitive health
By John D. Adams
Five years ago tech engineers at IBM premiered its supercomputer Watson in what could have been a very public humiliation. Without help from human handlers, Watson landed a spot as a contestant on “Jeopardy!.” Could an artificial intelligence (A.I.) have the finesse to navigate a variety of unknown variables and answer questions on its own in the allotted time? It could. And it did. Watson won. Today, Watson has grown exponentially and could now become a game-changer for medical research and development.
In The Clouds
In 2015, IBM announced the establishment of a Watson Health Cloud, which would provide a secure, open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers, and companies focused on health and wellness solutions.
Watson analyzes high volumes of data, understands complex questions posed in natural language, and proposes evidence-based answers. It continuously learns, gaining in value and knowledge over time from previous interactions. And Watson can also mask individual identities and allow this information to be shared and combined with a dynamic and constantly growing view of clinical, research and social health data. “With the ability to draw insights from massive volumes of integrated structured and unstructured data sources, cognitive computing could transform how clinicians diagnose, treat and monitor patients,” said Anne Le Grand, vice president of Imaging for Watson Health.
“Watson Health builds collaborative relationships with leaders across the healthcare ecosystem,” added Michael Rhodin, senior vice president of IBM Watson. “The groundbreaking applications of Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities by medical clients and partners clearly demonstrated the potential to fundamentally change the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery worldwide. We’re excited to broaden access to world-class technology and to work with our partners to transform health and wellness for millions of people.”
Beyond The Clouds
As Watson continues to develop, doctors and scientists in cancer and diabetes research are seeing how an A.I. can obliterate the time and energy humans now spend to simply keep up to date on health care developments. But as with its “Jeopardy!” dry run, Watson must first win over a skeptical audience.
John Kelly, senior vice president of Solutions Portfolio and Research for IBM remarks: “Watson has spent the last couple of years in healthcare doing amazing things. Helping pharmaceutical companies and universities find new drugs. Advising doctors on what they might do in terms of treatments, now there is an explosion of devices that is also generating data.”
Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of Watson Group for IBM continues: “Those devices are going to capture enormous amounts of data about us as human beings. They have capabilities that are going to fuel a data explosion. A data explosion that is going to explode in the next generation of health and healthcare. What if we are able to connect that information directly back to your doctor? Over the last two years we have really focused in on new health care solutions around Watson.”
Research On An Unprecedented Level
In an interview with “60 Minutes” correspondent Charlie Rose, Dr. Ned Sharpless, head of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, described his experience with the A.I. “I didn’t know much about Watson,” remarked Dr. Sharpless. “I had watched it play ‘Jeopardy!.’ But I was very skeptical. Oh, this is what we need, a ‘Jeopardy’-playing computer. Cancer is a tough business. There’s a lot of false Prophets, a lot of false promises… I just didn’t really understand what it would do.”
What Watson’s A.I. technology did was essentially what every doctor in Sharpless’s team does in their weekly molecular tumor board meetings. They come up with possible treatment options for cancer patients who have already failed standard therapies. They try to do this by sorting through all of the latest research and trial data around the world, but it is nearly impossible to keep up. “We have around 8,000 new research papers published every day,” said Dr. Sharpless. “We would be recommending therapies on research that was often 12 to 24 months out of date.”
After spending a week teaching Watson about medical terminology and information, the next week the A.I. combed through around 25 million papers while also scanning the Web for clinical trials opening in centers around the globe. “All of a sudden we had this complete list that was sort of everything one would need to know,” marveled Dr. Sharpless.
In June, Watson Health announced a long-term collaboration to bring together Watson and the American Diabetes Association’s vast repository of clinical and research data. The goal of the collaboration is to develop Watson-powered solutions that enable the diabetes community to optimize clinical, research and lifestyle decisions, and address important issues that influence health outcomes. As part of their commitment to the diabetes community, the organizations also announced a challenge to app developers to propose cognitive innovations that may transform how diabetes is prevented and managed.
Kelly concluded with Charlie Rose: “Fast-forward from [Jeopardy!], five years later, we’re in cancer now… It’s only at a few percent of its potential. I think this is a multi-decade journey that we’re on and we’re only a few years into it.”
To learn more about Watson, visit: ibm.com/watson/health