Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


IBM’s Watson AI Targets Healthcare

Posted on | November 11, 2014 | No Comments

Soon after I moved to Manoj SaxenaAustin, Texas, in late 2012, I attended a talk by Manoj Saxena, who was then General Manager of Watson Solutions, part of IBM’s Software Group. Named after IBM’s first CEO, Thomas J. Watson, the Watson system gained widespread recognition in 2011 when it competed against and defeated human champions on the popular American TV quiz show “Jeopardy!” They now focus on bringing to market the artificial intelligence (AI) computer system that beat the contestants on the game show. IBM is betting that its Watson “cognitive system,” based on Big Blue’s expertise in software and storage combined with new developments in natural language processing will change modern organizations, professional services, and entire industries, including finance, medicine and transportation.

I was particularly struck by one of their main pilot projects, using Watson in the healthcare industry. One of the tasks I took on at New York University was to shepherd a proposal for a Master of Science degree in Healthcare IT through the NYS Department of Education approval process. Others designed the program, so I can’t take credit for its content, but as the head of the Department of Management and Information Technology, it fell on my shoulders to push it through.

Soon, the challenges and objectives of the program captured my imagination and raised several questions for me, particularly regarding the roles of artificial intelligence (AI), big data, neural network algorithms, and Natural Language Processing (NLP).

Neither AI nor NLP held much of my interest in the past, as we’ve seen it in SF since the sixties with the computer in the Star Trek television series and, of course, HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The mouse and drop-down menus pioneered by Xerox and Apple proved to be more efficient than voice and, the more recent touch user interfaces developed by Apple for the iPad and iPhone are extraordinarily “handy” as well.

However, developments such as Apple’s Siri and the Android voice recognition system have made AI sufficiently intriguing. Granted, NLP is much more than just the interface. It is a whole system of machine intelligence with capabilities to process language questions and requests, conduct extensive searches, and analyze structured and increasingly unstructured data. The video above shows Watson’s language capabilities at play in the game show Jeopardy.

The role of information technologies in U.S. healthcare expanded dramatically after the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) was signed into law on February 17, 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). While the discussions about Obamacare linger, the regulations and structural reforms outlined in HITECH have transformed the healthcare industry.

Electronic Health Records (EHR), their “meaningful use”, and the regulations associated with them, such as HIPAA and its provisions for protected health information (PHI,) are becoming core components of the healthcare landscape. But for doctors who universally only have a few scant minutes to review these records before seeing each patient, they further add to the mounds of data they need to ingest and understand to keep on top of their profession and provide the best care. IBM sees Watson as a tool to help medical professionals make decisions about diagnoses and treatments by conducting data-intensive analysis and providing treatment options.

IBM has been working with medical research facilities at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Cleveland Clinic, and medical insurer WellPoint to enhance their healthcare capabilities. More than two million pages of text from medical journals and 1.5 million patient records were given to Watson by Memorial Sloan-Kettering to help it answer natural language questions about cancer treatments. IBM has also been working with healthcare insurer WellPoint to use Watson to help doctors make diagnoses based on less testing and more big data analysis to save money and improve diagnostic accuracy.

Wellpoint is the largest insurer in the U.S. and plans to use its Watson deployment for medical personnel who review complex treatment requests from doctors. Watson is programmed to sift through giant pools of medical literature to “form probabilistic logic chains” to support their recommendations. Wellpoint plans to roll out Watson for a few oncology practices, allowing doctors to work with it through their own computer systems or tablets to improve the quality of care and lower costs.

Probably the biggest question is not whether a “cognitive system” like Watson will change entire industries such as finance and healthcare but will Big Blue make any money off this venture into artificial intelligence. Saxena has moved on to Silicon Valley’s The Entrepreneurs Fund, where he still works on funding AI enterprises related to IBM Watson, but from a venture capitalist perspective. My guess is that artificial intelligence is a potentially disruptive technology that is quietly diffusing through modern life under pseudonyms like “cognitive systems,” “neural networks,” and “natural processing languages.” AI will likely have major repercussions over the next few years, but it will be interesting to see if IBM can continue leading the way.

In summary, IBM’s Watson represents a significant leap forward in AI, with its ability to process and analyze vast amounts of data in a contextually relevant manner. Its applications across various industries focus on the potential of cognitive computing to revolutionize how we make decisions, interact with technology, and solve complex problems.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2014, Nov 11). IBM’s Watson AI Targets Healthcare.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor at the State University of New York, Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He first taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii for many years.


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