Paul Tang was with his wife in the
hospital just after her knee replacement
surgery, a procedure performed on
about 700,000 people in the U.S. every
year. The surgeon came by, and Tang,
who is himself a primary-care physician,
asked when he expected her to be back
at her normal routines, given his experience with patients like her. The surgeon
kept giving vague non-answers. “Finally
it hit me,” says Tang. “He didn’t know.”
Tang would soon learn that most physicians don’t know how their patients do
in the ordinary measures of life back at
home and at work—the measures that
most matter to patients.
Tang still sees patients as a physician, but he’s also chief health transformation officer for IBM’s Watson Health.
That’s the business group developing
Although it has overhyped its Watson machine-learning
system, the company still could have the best access to
the kind of data needed to make medicine much smarter.
By David H. Freedman
health-care applications for Watson, the machine-learning system that IBM is
essentially betting its future on. Watson could deliver information that physicians
are not getting now, says Tang. It could tell a doctor, for instance, how long it took
for patients similar to Tang’s wife to be walking without pain, or climbing stairs. It
could even help analyze images and tissue samples and determine the best treat-
ments for any given patient.
It’s because of possibilities like this that health care is one of the hottest segments of the market for machine-learning technologies. Research firm CB Insights
counts at least 106 startups that have sprung up since 2013 and are still in business.
None of those companies has garnered anywhere near the attention that Watson has, thanks to its victory on the television quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011 and
zealous marketing by IBM ever since. But lately, much of the press for Watson has
been bad. A heavily promoted collaboration with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
in Houston fell apart this year. As IBM’s revenue has swooned and its stock price
has seesawed, analysts have been questioning when Watson will actually deliver
much value. “Watson is a joke,” Chamath Palihapitiya, an influential tech investor
who founded the VC firm Social Capital, said on CNBC in May.
However, most of the criticism of Watson, even from M.D. Anderson, doesn’t
seem rooted in any particular flaw in the technology. Instead, it’s a reaction to IBM’s
overly optimistic claims of how far along Watson would be by now. In fact, it still