Healthcare Technology Featured Article

February 03, 2016

Watson Makes Another Healthcare Push in Welltok, AHA Team-Up

Watson's days as king of the game show circuit seem so long ago, as this former novelty is now making its presence felt in a host of markets. From sales to medicine, Watson is challenging a lot of what many thought a computer could do. Most recently, it teamed up with Welltok and the American Heart Association (AHA) to help develop new health technology for the workplace with a particular focus on heart health.

The combination makes a shocking sense: the AHA is naturally an authority on heart health issues, and Welltok is a social health management operation. Throw in Watson's natural language processing capabilities and its analytics systems and the trio is a natural fit. All of the AHA's information will become raw fodder for Watson's analytics, and the whole thing will be presented via Welltok.

The IBM Watson Group actually has a closer connection to Welltok, as the group joined in the initial $22.1 million venture funding round, with Welltok and IBM joining into a joint development pact. Welltok has also brought out some impressive tools like the CafeWell Concierge, which uses some of Watson's learning algorithms to drive health programs best used to lower body mass index figures and the like.

This is a situation with some mixed benefits. Workplace wellness programs are usually a good thing, particularly if focused more on carrots than on sticks. Rewards for positive behavior beat punishments for negative, and the resulting benefits—lowered insurance costs—are a great start. Yet at the same time, this is a program partially developed by what amounts to at least a kind of artificial intelligence. Even with all its knowledge, can Watson ever really understand human motivation and create programs accordingly? Even if it could, would we want it to? The notion of handing over any portion of human living to a machine so thoroughly must be closely considered. The risk of machines one day learning that such are in command of humankind might be a precedent we don't want to set. Leave aside the cost of human jobs—who needs people around to make these programs when we can just toss it in Watson's lap for the price of a few kilowatt-hours of electricity and some software?—it's the idea of relinquishing control to machines that can be particularly troubling.

Still, the program as presented might be helpful, based on a lot of sound evidence that helps people get better. That's hard to call a bad thing, though here, the implications are much worse than the actual program outcome. We all want to be healthier, and having simple ways to get there can be valuable. The notion of a machine in charge of our improved health, though, should give us all pause.

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere

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