IBM: Drugs, Web Pages, and Watson

April 22, 2019

I read “Watson For Drug Discovery”. I don’t pay much attention to IBM’s assertions about its IBM Watson technology. The Jeopardy thing, the HRBlock thing, and the froth whipped up about smart software bored me.

This story was a bit different because, if it is accurate, it reveals a lack of coordination within a company which once was reasonably well organized. I worked on indexing the content of the IBM technical libraries and oversaw the leasing of certain data sets to Big Blue for a number of years. That IBM — despite the J1, J2, and J3 charging mechanism — was a good customer and probably could have made New York commuter trains run on time. (Well, maybe not.)

The Science Magazine story focuses on IBM pulling out of selling Watson to invent drugs. I mean if anyone took a look at the recipes Watson cooked up and memorialized in the IBM cook book, drugs seemed to be a stretch. Would you like tamarind for your cancer treatment? No, possibly another spice?

The factoid I noted in the article is that even though the drug thing is history, IBM keeps or kept its Web pages touting the Watson thing. I snapped this screen shot at 641 am US Eastern time on April 22, 2019. Here it is:


The Science Magazine write up (which I assume is not channeling its inner Saturday Night Live) states:

The idea was that it [Watson} would go ripping through the medical literature, genomics databases, and your in-house data collection, finding correlations and clues that humans had missed. There’s nothing wrong with that as an aspirational goal. In fact, that’s what people eventually expect out of machine learning approaches, but a key word in that sentence is “eventually”. IBM, though, specifically sold the system as being ready to use for target identification, pathway elucidation, prediction of gene and protein function and regulation, drug repurposing, and so on. And it just wasn’t ready for those challenges, especially as early as they were announcing that they were.

Failure I understand. The inability to manage the Web site is a bit like screwing up Job Control Language instructions. When I worked in the university computer lab, that was a minimum wage student job, dead easy, and only required basic organizational and coordination skills.

IBM seems to have lost something just as it did when it allegedly fired old timers to become the “new” IBM. Maybe the old IBM has something today’s IBM lacks?

Stephen E Arnold, April 22, 2019


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