IBM Watson wants to understand why Italians live so long
IBM Watson wants to understand why Italians live so long
WIRED HEALTH 2016 07 APRIL 16 by DUNCAN GEERE
You might know IBM’s Watson best for its victory on US game show Jeopardy!, or perhaps for its cookery prowess, or even the campaign to elect it to the US presidency. But IBM hopes that its supercomputer can also change the way doctors diagnose their patients, putting vast quantities of data at a physician’s fingertips. It’s next task? Trying to understand why Italians have such a high life expectancy.
“We call it cognitive computing,” Kyu Rhee, IBM’s chief health officer tells WIRED. “In many ways the challenge that a physician has is a big data challenge. When you think about all the information that’s in the medical record, all the information that’s in these textbooks, all the information that’s in the journals and the studies that come out every week.”
Three years ago, it was estimated that it would take 160 hours of reading per week just to keep up with new medical knowledge as it’s published. And that’s not including time to consider the practical applications or relevance of that research. Today, the pace is even faster. But supercomputers such as Watson can ingest all of that data and spit out only what’s relevant to a particular case, giving doctors access to better diagnostic information.
Take cancer, for example. Since 2013, IBM has been working with doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York to accumulate peer-reviewed medical knowledge related to oncology. That data is then made available to any hospital or clinic around the world. “I was just recently in Bumrungrad hospital in Bangkok, Thailand,” says Rhee, one of the speakers at WIRED Health 2016. “And I saw how Watson for Oncology was being used in supporting those oncologists at the point of care.”
Radiology is another area in which Watson specialises. Late last year, IBM acquired Merge, a company that handles and processes medical images for more than 7,500 hospitals and clinics in the United States. The thirty billion images in its database are now being analysed to find the telltale signatures of different disorders, so that a new image fed into the system can be immediately compared. “What Watson can do – in seconds – is look at all the images like that and provide awareness of certain areas in the image that radiologists should consider and look at,” explains Rhee. “Ones that could be concerning, that could be suspicious for malignancy or serious medical issues.”
Watson’s duties also extend beyond healthcare to various aspects of public wellness. “We realised that health is much more than healthcare,” Rhee says. The supercomputer’s population health capabilities can take a wide-angle view of a region and determine ways in which a healthcare organisation could intervene earlier to prevent hospitalisation from happening in the first place.
To that end, in November the company announced a partnership with population health specialists Welltok that lets IBM employees get a nudge on their phone or smartwatch to be more physically active, eat healthier or take their medications – personalised for each individual. “Watson is a cognitive system so it continues to learn,” says Rhee. “It continues to improve as it gets more experience and gets more data.”
Watson isn’t the only supercomputer operating within the health space. Over the past few years several others have been applied to various medical tasks – from China’s Tianhe-1A, which has been used in drug discovery and cancer research, to Rutgers University’s IBM Blue Gene P, which has helped conduct genetic studies, as well as performing medical imaging and informatics tasks. Neuroscientists are even using supercomputers to simulate a mammalian brain, in the Blue Brain Project.
These high-technology approaches aren’t without their detractors. Some physicians have expressed doubts that supercomputing can help with every patient – noting that it’s already relatively easy to diagnose conditions that many people suffer from, but rarer ones have far less data available. Plus, access to supercomputers isn’t much use if healthcare organisations, which tend to be notoriously underfunded and under-resourced, can’t afford it.
“Watson is a cognitive system so it continues to learn. It continues to improve as it gets more experience and gets more data”
Kyu Rhee, IBM
That’s where Rhee’s background comes in. “I’m very familiar with those underserved populations, having been a physician that worked in underserved communities prior to coming to IBM,” he explains. Rhee has previously worked at hospitals in Baltimore and Washington DC, as well as working in the US federal government. “As I look at the clients that we care for and provide value to, there is an extraordinary number of groups that are benefiting.”
The next step for IBM is an expansion into Europe. The company has just announced a $150 million investment in a Watson Health European Centre in Milan, Italy. The goal is to support the Italian government’s healthcare reform and research agenda, as well as glean some knowledge that can be shared more globally. “It’s a country that has extraordinary life expectancy,” says Rhee. “There are some extraordinary potential insights in how people can live and be healthy with the population there.”
Eventually Rhee hopes that Watson’s capabilities will become a part of every healthcare decision that’s made. “This idea of providing augmented intelligence to the key stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem,” he says. “Whether they be a provider, a consumer, a patient, a life science company, a health plan, a payer, an employer, or a government, highlights the opportunity and our ability to introduce ways in which we can translate big data into big insights and transform healthcare.”
Kyu Rhee will be speaking at WIRED Health 2016 on 29 April in London. From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector.
Now in its third year, tickets are still available for this incredibly popular one-day event. Discounts are available for NHS and government employees and for people working for health sector startups.