IBM Watson: Chug, Chug, Chugging Along

September 12, 2018

Beyond Search does feel a little sad for IBM. You know. The Watson thing.

IBM really, really wants their AI to cure cancer. We’ve reported on recent findings that the famous AI is, as of yet, falling short of that goal; Information Magazine adds some details in its opinion piece, “IBM’s Watson Hasn’t Beaten Cancer, but AI May Win.” Writer Faye Flam points to the revelations from internal IBM documents as reported by Stat News (registration required) that the software had made some “unsafe and incorrect” recommendations for cancer patients. Flam seems sure this is a temporary state and that, eventually, some form of machine-learning AI will come to permeate healthcare because medicine is, at heart, a data problem. She also notes, however, why cancer treatment is a particularly tough area to master—for one thing, humans ourselves haven’t quite mastered it yet. She writes:

“Cancer treatment is more complicated, because humans are still figuring it out. Patients get multiple treatments that may result in remission periods, but whether there’s a remission and how long it lasts depends on a host of variables. ‘It’s something we struggle with a lot,’ Beam said. ‘You want a ground-truth gold-standard correct answer for a given patient, and 99 percent of the time that doesn’t exist.’ Only a small fraction of cancer patients have their information recorded in a systematic way, said Isaac Kohane, a doctor and chairman of the biomedical informatics program at Harvard Medical School. That’s now starting to change. ‘Those of us in the AI community are extremely optimistic about how these techniques are going to revolutionize medicine,’ he said. But with Watson, ‘it’s just unfortunate that the marketing arm got ahead of the capabilities.’”

That marketing issue right there is the problem in a nutshell; salespeople gotta sell. AI, even Watson, holds great promise for better medical outcomes, but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. In the meantime, IBM is pursuing some less consequential AI projects, like delivering coffee by drone at just the right moment. TechAcute reports, “IBM Files a Patent for Coffee Delivery Drone Which Knows You Want Your Coffee.” Reporter Kate Sukhanova tells us the service monitors users’ biometric data and delivers them their cup of joe before they even know they need it. Just what we (or, perhaps Watson’s public relations) needed!

Cynthia Murrell, September 13, 2018

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