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Cognitive technology: is this the future of healthcare?

Blue Latitude Health|22nd May 2014

Cognitive technology: is this the future of Healthcare?

Artificial intelligence (AI) used to be a thing of science-fiction; now it is most definitely a part of our reality. The ability to act with appropriate judgement, make decisions based on emotion, fact, rational-thinking and intuition are all things which set humans apart from AI; because the intelligence and wisdom of a human being can be defined so precisely, machines can be programmed to simulate it.

Hong Kong-based venture fund management company, Deep Knowledge Ventures, is the first-ever company to appoint Artificial Intelligence (AI) as an official and equal board member; despite the negative portrayal of AI within modern fiction (which always ends in a rise of the machines and man’s regret at introducing AI into our world). With this in mind, are we making the sensible decision to integrate AI into our everyday lives? How can a non-human entity help with the advancement of healthcare? There are many benefits to developing a machine with cognitive skills to mimic the human process of understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, learning based on previous knowledge and experiences, as well as applying reason to the decision-making process.

IBM appear to be at the forefront of innovation within cognitive technology sector, with Watson. Named after IBM’s founder Thomas J. Watson, the skills this AI possess are:

  • Hypothesis Generation: When asked a question, Watson relies on hypothesis generation and evaluation to rapidly parse relevant evidence and evaluate responses from disparate data.
  • Natural Language: Watson can read and understand natural language, important in analysing unstructured data that make up as much as 80% of data today.
  • Dynamic Learning: Through repeated use, Watson literally gets smarter by tracking feedback from its users and learning from both successes and failures.

Watson “gets smarter” in three ways: by being taught by its users, by learning from previous interactions, and by being presented with new information. This means that we can more fully understand and use the data that surrounds us, and use that data to make better decisions. 

So how will this affect Healthcare?

A team of doctors are already teaching Watson about medicine, and Watson is in turn providing alternative treatment options. The ability to review data in this way could revolutionise medical research. IBM have invited businesses to develop new (or reimagine their existing) apps to include Watson technology. Of all the companies who applied, 25% were from the Healthcare industry. The prize for the top 3 finalists is 90 days access to Watson APIs as well as consultation from IBM Interactive design services. This could seriously change the future of healthcare apps! The focus for the healthcare finalists appears to be on how Watson can help improve knowledge of disease and treatment options to more accurately diagnose based on symptoms present, and provide the most effective treatment option. In theory, Watson (the diagnostician) has the potential to become an integral part of our healthcare system.

Other innovations in healthcare AI have developed a prototype app which aims to drive users to its telemedicine network of physicians who would use the responses provided by Watson to help narrow diagnoses based on the list of symptoms entered by users. With additional data available, such as: pharmacy interactions, medical history, lab tests, biometrics and insurance information; this is an ideal use of Watson’s capabilities, for the ability to learn would improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis, as well as immediate suggestions to the most appropriate treatment plan.

Biovideo want to utilise Watson to improve upon an existing reference tool. Baby 101 is a complete parenting library with hundreds of selected videos to provide information to parents at each step in a baby's development. With the use of Watson, this library can grow exponentially to provide a reference tool which can help both parents and physicians when an infant is sick, and to keep up-to-date on the trends within early child development.

Ringful Health would use Watson as an aggregation tool to help tailor patient recommendations on screening tests. The idea is that the responses generated with Watson’s technology would make patient conversations with their physicians more meaningful and efficient. On a broader scale, the company believes its Better Screening tool could reduce waste associated with over-diagnosis and over-treatment.


The growth potential this has for healthcare is huge, not only providing a faster and more reliable diagnostic service for patients, but the data it would provide to pharmaceutical companies can help them develop more effective treatments, maybe even a cure!

Read more about artificial intelligence in Kulveer Singh's article, which you can download below.

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