When IBM’s artificial intelligence program – named Watson – won Jeopardy in 2011, it was a major boon for the industry. However, far from showing that it was Turing-compatible, Watson was merely processing information that it had been programmed to know. But now, IBM is pushing the software forward in the hopes that the machine will be able to answer the really tough questions – i.e. the ones that have no answer and require educated guesses.
This is part of IBMs attempts to turn Watson into a new line of business and make it useful in a wide range of industries that are dealing lately with an overwhelming amount of data. At an event in New York at the end of August, IBM showed off the ways some of its early customers are using the Watson “Discovery Advisor” in research, development, and innovation, especially in the realm of biotech and life sciences.
Watson’s aim is to speed up discoveries by teams of researchers by, for example, scanning and interpreting millions of scientific books, articles, and data points–far more than any person’s brain could analyze–and generating new hypothesis or leads that might be fruitful to investigate. As John Gordon, the vice-president of IBM’s Watson group, put it, it’s all about giving researchers “smarter hunches”:
It’s not giving answers that people know anymore, it’s pointing people in directions that they should investigate. We’re talking about a computing system that inspires people.
Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine and IBM Research have already used Watson to discover new pathways to cancer therapies, which they reported in a study presented at an academic conference late last month. Watson looked closely at 70,000 scientific articles on a protein, called p53, that’s involved in more than half of all cancers, and picked out 6 different proteins that it felt were good candidates for new drugs and therapies.
Drug companies, too, which are struggling today to develop new commercial drugs, are some of the earliest users of Watsons predictive capabilities. Sanofi is using Watson to look through the research literature and its own data to find new uses for its existing drugs on the market. And Johnson & Johnson has developed a system that analyzes clinical studies to compare the efficacy and safety of different treatments.
Soledad Cepeda, Johnson & Johnson’s director of epidemiology, used the example of back pain, for which there are 27 treatments studied in more than 3,000 clinical trials. As she explained:
[Analyzing this] is slow, it’s tedious, it’s expensive, and it’s prone to errors. Now imagine we can teach Watson to do that for us. So instead of six months, Watson can do it in minutes.
Johnson & Johnson has been working to train Watson to read each study, put it in context, and pick out how many patients dropped out of the study or trial due to side effects or ineffective results. If Watson can give researchers all of this comparative data, rather than them combing through thousands of papers, it would allow researchers to come up with better questions to ask and directions to explore.
But of course, this is not always an easy things for Watson to do and requires setup and new skills for it to learn. For example, in Johnson & Johnson’s work, in the studies Watson was analyzing, authors often reported the key data in the form of flow diagrams. So Soledad and her team had to first teach Watson to correctly read flow diagrams of varying levels of complexity and design.
So far, Watson’s earliest discovery applications have been in the field of biomedical research. But the company hopes it will prove useful in a wide array of fields where the data available to analyze is growing faster than even the world’s top experts are capable of comprehending – such as law enforcement and finance. Whether it’s determining whodunnit, or predicting market trends in the next quarter, Watson could prove very helpful in tackling the task of big-data crunching.
To illustrate the potential for law enforcement, Roberto Villasenor, chief of police for the city of Tucson, Arizona, spoke at the event and detailed an open case of a young child who went missing from her home. Over two years of investigating, the police have generated 15,000 pages of lab reports, records, and warrants, 25,00 pages of interviews, 4,000 pages of transcribed wiretaps, and much other data.
His department has already worked with IBM on software that integrates different police databases to make it easier for investigators to make connections between disparate data sources. But he hopes systems like Watson will eventually go further and be capable of aiding investigators in combing through data, making subtle connections, and generating new leads in difficult cases.
However, the most public demonstration of Watson’s new abilities thus far has been in the form of “Chef Watson”. IBM has put Watson to the task of learning how to cook and then creating creative tasty and unexpected new recipes. It debuted this capability at a food truck at SxSW this year, but has also been working with the Institute of Culinary Education and Bon Appetit magazine to refine and stretch Watson’s cooking skills.
Bon Appetit is now beta testing a consumer app that allows readers to input an ingredient and desires and have Watson generate suggested recipes. It held a Watson recipe contest this summer–the winner of the “best use of Watson as a creative discovery tool” was a “Roasted tomato and mozzarella tart” recipe. Cooking isn’t like curing cancer or solving crimes, but to IBM it’s most about getting the public excited about its advances.
As IBM senior vice president Mike Rhodin said:
Much the same way that Jeopardy helped people understand systems that can answer questions using natural language, Chef Watson is a way for us to understand how these new systems can be used in our everyday lives.
And that’s the real aim here, long-term, which is adapting computer-learning into our daily lives. And given time, we may have access to AIs that can do the difficult and mind-numbing task of sifting through gigabytes, terabytes and even petabytes of information in order to find answers to tough questions, discern the patterns, and come up with solutions. One can only hope they don’t use that information for evil and try to destroy us!
Knowledge is power, after all…