Healthcare Technology Featured Article

June 13, 2013

How IBM Could Save Your Life Through Artificial Intelligence

I attended IBM’s huge EDGE conference this last week, and the second day was devoted to the company’s strategic future. A good chunk of the discussion was based on Watson, the technology IBM created to win Jeopardy!   Apparently, IBM is using this tech to do everything from responding to China’s cyber-attacks to fixing the voting system in the US. But the most powerful task is the massive effort by Watson to make sure you and I live long and happy lives. Not dying prematurely is on the short list of things that have a high priority for me so figured I’d talk about that this week.

Watson’s War on Cancer

By the time you get to my age, you will likely have known a lot of people that have and have died from cancer. In my own case, I’ve lost two stepmothers, a stepfather, uncle, sister-in-law and a number of co-workers to the disease. And I have a close friend who just finished a second round of chemo. This disease is incredibly expensive to treat and can leave a family -- even one with good health insurance -- destitute regardless of whether the person who has it is cured or not.  This disease kills rich and poor alike and is what killed Steve Jobs.    

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

However, there is a massive amount of research worldwide on cancer cures and procedures that work on tens of thousands and a massive amount of increasing knowledge on both the causes and preventions. The only problem is that the average doctor, even a cancer specialist, will only see a small fraction of this information during a career and, as a result, there is about a 45 percent chance they won’t treat cancer properly.  

This is kind of like flipping a coin, not to determine whether you’ll be cured or not, but to see whether or not you’ll even get the right treatment for the type of cancer you have. However, if you could parse all the data that is out there and push it through an AI system that could connect context to results, you could take that 55 percent chance of being accurate and push it up over 90 percent, vastly improving the chances that you, a friend or a loved one would be cured. More important, given that much of the medical expenses you are paying are for medications and procedures you don’t need, the result would be a far lower chance that the costs would break your bank.  

That’s what IBM demonstrated at Edge this year; actually it wasn’t IBM, it was WellPoint, the largest medical provider in the US. It’s had Watson under trial, and the results have been so astounding that the company plans to have Watson serving 50 percent of Wellpoint practitioners by year end. Based on the trial, Wellpoint expects massive improvements in successful cancer recovery, massive reductions in healthcare costs (by eliminating unnecessary procedures) and there should be an equally massive improvement in perceived healthcare quality (largely because the number of people both living and financially solvent at the end of the process will have risen sharply). Granted, dead people aren’t known for complaining that much, but their spouses usually make up for that.  

This is the first broad-scale application of artificial intelligence focused on saving lives, and I think it is rather important. It’s so important that I think, should you or a loved one be fighting cancer, that you should prefer a medical facility that has Watson as a resource. There is a better chance you’ll emerge with the right number of hands, feet and days left to live.  

Wrapping Up: Watson’s other Uses

Using AI to analyze massive amounts of data fits very well with medical projects, but it also works well with defense, cyber-security and elections. These are just a few areas where Watson is being deployed.   On elections, it is being used to register people who have moved and deregister people who have died in order to eliminate the powerful “dead person voting block” that has elected a rather impressive amount of brain-dead politicians.  Beyond curing cancer, it could also cure much of what is ailing many countries, including the US. Watson is an amazing technology only in its infancy; if this thing could cure most cancers in its infancy imagine what it could do when it becomes an adult.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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