Watson goes to Washington: IBM shows off latest health-care work to lawmakers

May 17, 2013

Watson, IBM’s supercomputer named after company founder Thomas Watson, was on Capitol Hill Thursday to show off what it has learned since it dove into health care roughly a year ago.


Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), right, receives a demonstration from IBM’s Michael Holmes of new proposed capabilities for the Watson supercomputer on Capitol Hill Thursday, May 16, 2013. (Emi Kolawole)

“I thought I was coming up to play chess with a computer,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Tex.) as he took the podium in the House Energy and Commerce committee room during an event hosted by IBM and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), vice chair of the committee. But the now-famous servers were nowhere in sight, since Watson’s computing power is now accessible to authorized users through the cloud.

Burgess, a medical doctor, was among a group of lawmakers invited to attend the event Thursday afternoon. Nearly all of the invited members, minus Blackburn who was unable to attend, were formally trained in the sciences.

The Watson team has been collaborating with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and health-care insurance provider Well Point to teach the computer everything there is to know in the medical world. And members of the team were in Washington to showcase some of the supercomputer’s new health-care related features, including the ability to ingest patients’ medical information and synthesize thousands of medical journals and other reference materials along with a patient’s preferences to recommend treatment options. Watson, IBM representatives made sure to emphasize, does not offer do-this-not-that instructions to doctors or diagnose patients on its own.

The capabilities are still in development, so IBM representatives wouldn’t estimate a price tag for a Dr. Watson-style system or its arrival date in a hospital near you. But Martin Kohn, IBM Care Delivery System’s Chief Medical Scientist said that the system likely wouldn’t be cheap and hinted that it could be some time before it was made available to the general marketplace.

“It takes a lot of manpower—very bright people—to do this,” said Kohn, mentioning that it took four years to teach Watson enough to play Jeopardy. “We’ve been working on medicine for about a year and a half. So, it takes a little time.”

But Watson is at a point now, says Kohn, where it will be released to community-based oncology groups. In a couple of months the system will be delivered to WestMed and the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine for further testing.

Michael Barr, a member of the Watson advisory board and Senior Vice President of the American College Physicians said he envisioned the system eventually “becoming a virtual member of the clinical team,” while serving as a new form of documentation of a physician’s clinical judgment. He went on to say Watson could have the potential to upend the existing certification process.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a physicist and five-time Jeopardy! champion, who played a match against the system a couple of years ago, was on hand to speak to Watson’s potential promise.

“It really shows it has the potential to improve health outcomes,” said Holt of Watson’s performance. “I look forward to hearing how it’s working.”

Another scientist, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) was also on hand, describing himself as “the other 50 percent of the strategic reserve of physicists in Congress.” Foster is a physicist and was involved in the discovery of the heaviest known subatomic particle.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) was among the lawmakers in attendance. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which received access to a version of Watson earlier this year, is included in Tonko’s district.

“Keep on keeping on, we need this research,” said Tonko.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a medical doctor and fresh off an announcement that he wouldn’t run for the Senate also delivered remarks.

“What an exciting time this is,” said Price, going on to recount his days in medical school. “We as a Congress as the federal government, ought to be facilitating this kind of activity and not putting roadblocks in the way. And I’m very concerned about some of the roadblocks that I think we have been putting in the way here in Washington.”


Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) delivers remarks at an event hosted by IBM on Capitol Hill Thursday, May 16, 2013. (Emi Kolawole)

Price wasn’t alone in touching on the need for government to clear the path for continued technological innovation in health care. Burgess also addressed the issue.

“Let’s be honest, you guys are the vanguard,” said Burgess of IBM. “Government can help, it can hurt, or it can stay out of the way. My job is to help where I can, try to make sure we minimize the hurt. And, for the most part, stay out of your way.”

But lawmakers and IBM offered few specifics as to what that would mean in terms of specific policy proposals and legislation. Though an IBM spokesman said the company came to Washington with no specific legislative ask and that the event was merely to educate lawmakers as to the system’s new capabilities.

But one message was clear: “We’ll keep innovating,” said IBM VP of Governmental Programs Christopher Padilla to Burgess jovially, “you keep helping us on the regulatory side.”

To which the lawmaker replied, smiling, “I understand my job.”

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Emi Kolawole · May 17, 2013