From Jeopardy to Cancer Treatment: An IBM Story

February 10, 2013

I read “IBM Supercomputer Watson to Help in Cancer Treatment.” I am burned out on the assertions of search, content processing, and analytics vendors. The algorithms predict, deliver actionable information, and answer tough questions. Okay, I will just believe these statements. Most of the folks with whom I interact either believe these statements or do not really care.

Watson, as you may know, takes open source goodness, layers on a knowledge base, and wraps the confection in layers of smart software. I am simplifying, but the reality is irrelevant given the marketing need.

Here’s the passage I noted:

A year ago, a team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering started working with an IBM and a WellPoint team to train Watson to help doctors choose therapies for breast and lung cancer patients. They continue to share their knowledge and expertise in oncology and information technology, beginning with hundreds of lung cancers, the aim being to help Watson learn as much as possible about cancer care and how oncologists use medical data, as well as their experiences in personalized cancer therapies. During this period, doctors and technology experts have spent thousands of hours helping Watson learn how to process, analyze and interpret the meaning of sophisticated clinical data using natural language processing; the aim being to achieve better health care quality and efficiency.

There you go. For the dozens of companies working to create next generation information retrieval systems which are affordable, actually work, and can be deployed without legions of engineers—game over. IBM Watson has won the search battle. Now for the optimists who continue to pump money into decade old search companies which have modest revenue growth, kiss those bucks goodbye. For the PhD students working on the revolutionary system which promises to transform findability, get a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. And Google? Well, IBM knows your limits so stick to selling ads.

IBM is doing it all:

Manoj Saxena, IBM General Manager, Watson Solutions, said:

“IBM’s work with WellPoint and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center represents a landmark collaboration in how technology and evidence based medicine can transform the way in which health care is practiced. breakthrough capabilities bring forward the first in a series of Watson-based technologies, which exemplifies the value of applying big data and analytics and cognitive computing to tackle the industry’s most pressing challenges.”

How different is Watson from the HP Autonomy, Recommind, or even the DR LINK technology? Well, maybe the open source angle is the same. But IBM needs to do more than make assertions and buy analytics companies as the company recycles open source technology in my opinion. I thought IBM was a consulting firm? Here I am wrong again. Watson probably “knew” that after hours of training, tuning, and talking. But in the back of my mind, I ask, “What if those training data are inapplicable to the problem at hand? What if the journal articles are fiddled by tenure seekers or even pharmaceutical outfits or institutions trying to maximize insurance payouts or careless record keeping by medical staff? Nah, irrelevant questions. IBM has this smart system nailed. Search solved. What’s next IBM?

Stephen E Arnold, February 10, 2013


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