IBM's cognitive computing technology moves past Jeopardy and into serious healthcare challenges, including cancer treatment. IBM's rivals seem stuck on more prosaic problems.
10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare
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It was an amazing feat when Watson, IBM's "cognitive" -- listening, "thinking" and learning -- computing platform handily beat two Jeopardy grand champions in February 2011, but it also left us wanting to know if, when and how the technology would be used in the real world. The world got its first glimpse of Watson at work in a commercial setting on Friday when IBM announced the release of three new health care decision-support applications.
The three new applications include one for recommending cancer treatment options and two for reviewing and authorizing treatments and related health insurance claims. They are the first examples of what IBM describes as a next-generation cognitive computing that has the potential to change healthcare, and IBM promises it's just the beginning, as IBM and several partners are planning many more applications. IBM is also moving to roll out Watson in other information-intensive industries including banking, insurance and telecommunications.
The company started with healthcare and, within that field, chronic care and cancer because of the challenge. "We didn't choose it because it was easy," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, at last week's event. "We chose it because it has the most meaning and impact on society."
The topics that IBM is addressing these days -- using analytics to improve public services such as policing, run electrical utilities more reliably, and, most particularly, treat cancer more effectively with Watson -- are a stark contrast to the preoccupations of many of its biggest rivals. IBM presciently sold its PC business to Lenovo back in 2004. Today, server rivals Hewlett-Packard and Dell are both mired in the question of how to move on either with or without the low-margin, commoditized PC business.
Oracle, meanwhile, is trying to stabilize the Sun server business -- which saw its heyday in the dot-com era -- by tying it closely to its successful and profitable software business with its Exa systems. That's a sound business strategy, but it's not exactly a grand vision for transforming industries or benefiting society. CEO Larry Ellison seems mostly interested in chest thumping about these engineered systems and taking pot shots at rivals IBM, SAP and Salesforce.com.; the closest thing to real vision is Oracle's fairly new customer-experience push.
IBM teamed with Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) in New York, one of the world's top institutions for cancer treatment, to develop Interactive Care Insights for Oncology, the clinical decision-support application announced last week. A key difference between Watson and prior-generation decision-support tools, said executives from IBM and Sloan-Kettering, is that it keeps learning. It incorporates the latest symptoms and test results on individual patients and also the latest medical research and clinical trial outcomes. Over the last year, Watson has been trained on more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence and two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the field of oncology. Sloan-Kettering has added details on 1,500 lung-cancer cases, training the technology to interpret physicians' notes, lab results and clinical research on specialized treatments based on the genetics of tumors.
"There has been an explosion in medical research, and doctors can't possibly keep up," said Dr. Mark Kris, chief of Sloan-Kettering's Thoracic Oncology Service, who demonstrated the oncology application on an iPad at last week's event.
The iPad app is akin to the patient's chart, with light note taking and entry of new symptoms possible, but the heavy-duty entry of patient records and lab test results happens behind the scenes so it doesn't interfere with a patient consultation. The doctor uses touch navigation to browse the latest symptoms and test results. The decision support is delivered as a prioritized list of recommended tests and treatment regimens together with confidence scores and links to supporting research.
In Kris' demo, a lung cancer patient's tumor is revealed to have a genetic marker that recent research says is not responsive to therapies usually prescribed in such circumstances. It was a fictitious demo example, but Kris said it highlights the very real opportunity to take advantage of the very latest advances in areas such as personalized care based on genetic research.
"We always rely on our colleagues to back us up on tough cases, and now we have an opportunity to consult with this new [digital] colleague to bring us additional information," Kris said.
Sloan-Kettering plans to move beyond lung cancer into other forms of the disease in the months and years ahead. Meanwhile, IBM has other partners, such as Cleveland Clinic and Cedars-Sinai, and plans to move into medical training and other chronic-care areas, such as diabetes, heart disease and mental health.
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