IBM pushes Watson's role in healthcare

Works with industry players to develop commercial offerings

IBM is pushing for Watson to play a greater role in healthcare analytics, saying that the supercomputer platform can extend medical knowledge globally and help doctors access information and advice faster than ever before.

At its Impact conference this week, IBM is showcasing some of the achievements of its business partners and Watson in the medical field. IBM has already committed $100 million to a 10-year project in Africa that is expected to help the region tackle healthcare challenges.

"Watson can know more than any human being, calculates the probabilities, has the statistics and it doesn't struggle to remember or reach conclusions based on the available information, compared to humans" said Steve Mills, IBM's head Software and Systems.

Watson is the core of IBM's cognitive computing technology. The company is focusing a lot of resources on making Watson a success. In January, for example, the company set up a new division, the Watson Business Group, to create and run cloud-based cognitive applications and services for enterprise users.

To encourage developers and partners to build their businesses around Watson, IBM launched a developer competition in February at the Mobile World Congress, which attracted over 400 apps from 40 countries and 25 finalists from nine countries.

To gain domain expertise in any given field, Watson has to be trained in various dimensions: on the language used in the area, the body of knowledge the field comprises and in the case of healthcare, how theory is used and applied in the medical field.

"Watson has partnered with healthcare leaders to transform how healthcare is practiced and taught, including enhancing the quality and speed of care delivered to patients through individualized, evidence-based medicine; if you depend on a doctor, he or she may not be there, but Watson will always be there," Mills added.

IBM is already working with several healthcare service providers, like WellPoint and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), to figure out ways to use advanced analytics, clinical knowledge bases, and genomic data to deliver better services.

Researchers, clinicians, faculty and students at Cleveland Clinic are using Watson as a collaborative education tool. In addition, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is using the Watson platform for its mission to eradicate cancer, incorporating mobility tools.

While Watson may be gaining ground in certain vertical markets in the U.S., though, IBM faces a tough task with its "Project Lucy" 10-year plan to use Watson to deliver solutions in healthcare, education, water and sanitation, and agriculture in Africa. Most of the basic infrastructure and knowledge existing in the U.S. does not exist in the majority of African countries.

"Outside of South Africa, most African countries face major skills challenges; our goal is to improve the capacity, and that is why we have set up a research lab and increased the level of interaction between IBM staff and the various IT sectors," Mills said.

Meanwhile, work needs to be done before Watson applications are commercially available on a widespread basis.

"We are working with groups on natural language processing, growing it to be flexible on the languages and the data it can process, before we can come up with a commercial offering," in the healthcare field, said Jerry Cuomo, the chief technical officer of IBM's WebSphere group.

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