Artificially intelligent Watson gets Israeli boost as it studies medicine

Haifa researchers are teaching new tricks to the IBM cognitive computing platform, former ‘Jeopardy’ champ and master chef

IBM's Watson competes on US TV show Jeopardy, January 11, 2013 (Photo credit: Courtesy IBM)
IBM's Watson competes on US TV show Jeopardy, January 11, 2013 (Photo credit: Courtesy IBM)

Lean ground beef and dark chocolate aren’t ingredients most chefs wouldn’t think to put together for a successful dish – but then again, most chefs aren’t Chef Watson.

Most people remember Watson, IBM’s super-smart cognitive computing platform, for its big win in 2011 on TV’s “Jeopardy,” when the machine beat the long-running quiz show’s all-time human champs. Like its ability to answer questions on esoteric Jeopardy-style questions, Watson’s recipe for Austrian Chocolate Burritos, the surprising beef and chocolate combo, was proclaimed a winner by chefs who tasted it at last year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Watson has made a lot of progress since its Jeopardy win, much of it in Israel. While an Israeli team helped with the development of the just-released Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, a collaboration between IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education, IBM’s Haifa lab has been working on a number of other important Watson projects as well.

One of the most important of these is the Watson Health Cloud, which will “provide a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers and companies focused on health and wellness solutions,” said Dr. Aya Soffer, director, Big Data and Cognitive Analytics at the Haifa facility.

“We’ve had Watson study the medical literature, and now it’s ready to apply its natural language processing skills to real-life applications,” said Soffer. If Watson has been to cooking school and graduated with honors (professional chefs have given a big thumbs up to the recipes), “you could say that Watson has successfully finished medical school as well.”

More than just a big data platform, Watson takes in information and learns how to use it, said Gabi Tal, one of the creators of IBM’s Haifa Global Technology Unit. “Watson was built to show the capabilities for artificial intelligence and using and understanding natural language.”

More than just a supercomputer, Watson is a platform, “a solution that applies advanced analytics to a variety of industries, like healthcare, finance, and customer services,” Tal said.

The system has been programmed to “think,” using the “common cognitive framework that humans use to inform their decisions: Observe, Interpret, Evaluate, and Decide,” said the company.

Dr. Aya Soffer (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Aya Soffer (Photo credit: Courtesy)

IBM is using that system to explore new solutions in a number of areas, from cooking to medicine, the discipline the Haifa team is specializing in, said Soffer. “We worked extensively with medical experts, especially with oncologists, to develop the intelligence Watson uses to query the medical data and make recommendations. We see Watson as an adjunct for medical personnel, providing insight into issues and problems that will help doctors make better, more informed decisions.”

There’s plenty for Watson to figure out in medicine, said Soffer. With the increasing prevalence of personal fitness trackers, connected medical devices, implantables and other sensors that collect real-time information, the average person is likely to generate more than one million gigabytes of health-related data in their lifetime (the equivalent of more than 300 million books). But besides being almost unmanageable on their own, those data sets are fragmented and not easily shared – so information from various electronic sources, as well as from doctor-created medical records, clinical research and individual genomes, are generally not analyzed on a single platform.

That lack of “meshing” means that correlations that could save lives – information about how drugs work in specific situations, or how environmental features affect an individual with a certain condition – don’t get analyzed. By bringing in all these data sources and checking all their specifics, understanding the details and asking questions about how diseases “work,” Watson can make important contributions to health care, said John E. Kelly III, IBM senior vice president, solutions portfolio and research.

“All this data can be overwhelming for providers and patients alike, but it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to transform the ways in which we manage our health. We need better ways to tap into and analyze all of this information in real-time to benefit patients and to improve wellness globally. Only IBM has the advanced cognitive capabilities of Watson and can pull together the vast ecosystem of partners, practitioners and researchers needed to drive change, as well as to provide the open, secure and scalable platform needed to make it all possible.”

Even before the Watson Health Cloud was announced last month, hospitals and research centers in the US, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the Mayo Clinic, were using the platform to research oncology issues. The platform is also being used by the Cleveland Clinic and the New York Genome Center to determine the genetic sequences that may hold the key to curing or preventing a host of illnesses.

“Pharmaceutical firms are using Watson to discover relationships between diseases, symptoms, nutrition, environmental factors, and more, in order to determine the best way to treat a disease, in a much more holistic manner than would have been possible before,” said Soffer. “The information is presented in clear graphs, charts, and reports, all cloud-accessible, and the software learns and remembers based on results, honing its cognitive capabilities to present ever-more accurate results.

To get the raw data, IBM is collaborating with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic to create new health-based offerings that leverage information collected from personal health, medical and fitness devices. The results will be better insights, real-time feedback and recommendations to improve everything from personal health and wellness to acute and chronic care. These relationships are non-exclusive, and IBM anticipates many more companies will leverage the Watson Health Cloud platform.

Watson Health Cloud and Cognitive Cooking are just two ways the system is being used, said Soffer; there’s a lot more on the drawing board, and Haifa expects to be a major partner in those areas as well. “For example, we are developing a system that will parse all of Wikipedia and successfully argue a specific issue. The Watson Debater, as the project is called, is the next level of natural language processing, with the system reading the pros and cons on a specific issue – like whether vaccinations are a good or bad thing – and giving both sides of the argument, with all the nuances.”

Worldwide, said Soffer, IBM has about 500 people working on Watson technology, with about 100 of them working in Haifa. “We have made Watson a priority for the company,” said Soffer. “Major changes in the way we deal with data are on the way. In five years that interaction will be totally different than what we have now.”

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