IBM’s Artificial Intelligence Watson versus cancer: Hype meets reality

IBM’s Artificial Intelligence Watson versus cancer: Hype meets reality, by David Gorski.

Since 2012, IBM has been collaborating with several cancer institutes to apply Watson’s talents to cancer treatment. …

Not surprisingly, Watson’s entry into cancer care and interpretation of cancer genomics was … highly hyped, with overwhelmingly positive press coverage and little in the way of skeptical examination of what, exactly, Watson could potentially do and whether it could actually improve patient outcomes. Overall, as Watson moved into the clinical realm, you’d be hard-pressed not to think that this was a momentous development that would change cancer care forever for the better. There were plenty of headlines like “IBM to team up with UNC, Duke hospitals to fight cancer with big data” and “The future of health care could be elementary with Watson.” The future looked bright.

An article in STAT News last week by Casey Ross and Ike Swetlitz suggests otherwise, at least so far: “IBM pitched its Watson supercomputer as a revolution in cancer care. It’s nowhere close.”

STAT observes:

Perhaps the most stunning overreach is in the company’s claim that Watson for Oncology, through artificial intelligence, can sift through reams of data to generate new insights and identify, as an IBM sales rep put it, “even new approaches” to cancer care. STAT found that the system doesn’t create new knowledge and is artificially intelligent only in the most rudimentary sense of the term.

While Watson became a household name by winning the TV game show “Jeopardy!”, its programming is akin to a different game-playing machine: the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing robot of the 1700s, which dazzled audiences but hid a secret — a human operator shielded inside.

In the case of Watson for Oncology, those human operators are a couple dozen physicians at a single, though highly respected, U.S. hospital: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Doctors there are empowered to input their own recommendations into Watson, even when the evidence supporting those recommendations is thin.

Another way of saying this is that Watson isn’t really an artificial intelligence when it comes to cancer, but rather a very powerful computer that is very good at coming up with treatment plans based on human-inputted algorithms that it’s taught. …

BM represents Watson as being able to look for patterns and derive treatment recommendations that human doctors might otherwise not be able to come up with because of our human shortcomings in reading and assessing the voluminous medical literature, but what Watson can actually do is really rather modest. That’s not to say it’s not valuable and won’t get better with time, but the problem is that it doesn’t come anywhere near the hype.

hat-tip Matthew