IBM Watson and Health: Take Two Aspirin, Do Not Call Me in the Morning

March 8, 2021

IBM Watson was going to put cancer in the cupboard with AS/400 manuals. Then the billion dollar brainiac was going to deal with the Covid Rona thing. Neither worked out.

Ever since Watson blew the competition away on Jeopardy, IBM boasted that their supercomputer would enhance and/or repair industries.  The biggest mountain IBM wanted Watson to scale was healthcare and MarketScreener shares: “International Business Machines: IBM’s Retreat From Watson Highlights Broader AI Struggles In Health.”

IBM speculated that AI and machine learning would revolutionize the healthcare industry, so they invested billions in Watson Health.  Watson Health was a unit dedicated to developing an AI product that could diagnose and cure cancer.  The unit was not profitable and IBM is now selling it. 

Google’s DeepMind also invested in healthcare AI programs, but they too lost money and privacy on health data was a big concern. 

The biggest roadblock, like all AI endeavors, is the lack of data and insights into the healthcare field:

“The stumbles highlight the challenges of attempting to apply AI to treating complex medical conditions, healthcare experts said. The hurdles include human, financial and technological barriers, they said. Having access to data that represents patient populations broadly has been a challenge, the experts say, as have gaps in knowledge about complex diseases whose outcomes often depend on many factors that may not be fully captured in clinical databases.

Tech companies also sometimes lack deep expertise in how healthcare works, adding to the challenge of implementing AI in patient settings, according to Thomas J. Fuchs, Mount Sinai Health System’s dean of artificial intelligence and human health.”

IBM has not given up on healthcare entirely.  Watson Health did have some small successes, but in order to nab a profit IBM needs to sell its excess and concentrate on smaller initiatives. 

IBM tried to make sweeping changes by casting a wide net, instead of focusing on smaller steps towards the big picture. Marketing is easier than building systems that live up to the collateral written by MBAs and art history majors it seems.

Whitney Grace, March 8, 2021


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