Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


IBM’s Watson AI Targets Healthcare

Posted on | November 11, 2014 | No Comments

Soon after I moved to Manoj SaxenaAustin in in late 2012, I attended a talk by Manoj Saxena, who was then General Manager of Watson Solutions, part of IBM’s Software Group that focuses on bringing to market the computer system that beat the experts on the popular TV game show Jeopardy. 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. The program was designed by others, 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 did capture my imagination and raised a number of 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 been seeing it in SF since the sixties with the computer in Star Trek and of course HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001 (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 is extraordinary “handy” as well.

However, developments such as Apple’s Siri and the Android voice recognition system have made it sufficiently intriguing. Granted, NLP is much more than 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 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 on, 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 in order 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 their Watson deployment for medical personnel who review complex treatment requests from doctors. Watson is programmed to sift through large 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 and hopes to improve the quality of care and lower costs.

Probably the biggest question is not whether “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 is likely to have major repercussions over the next few years, but it will be interesting to see if IBM can continue to lead the way.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University in South 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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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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