Coffee break reading: a ‘thumbs down’ on IBM Watson Health from IEEE Spectrum and ‘Der Spiegel’

In a few short years (2012 to now), IBM Watson Health has gone from being a 9,000 lb Harbinger of the Future to a Flopping Flounder. It was first MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas last year [TTA 22 Feb 17] kicking Watson to the curb after spending $62 million, then all these machine learning, blockchain, and AI upstarts doing most of what Watson was going to do, but cheaper and faster, which this Editor observed early on [TTA 3 Feb 17]. At the end of May, IBM laid off hundreds of workers primarily at three recently acquired data analytics companies. All came on board as market leaders with significant books of business: Phytel, Explorys, and Truven. Clients have evaporated; Phytel, before the acquisition ranked #1 by KLAS in analytics for its patient communication system, reportedly went from 150 to 80 clients. IBM denies the layoffs were anything but much-needed post-acquisition restructuring and refocusing on high-value segments of the IT market.

IEEE Spectrum rated the causes as corporate mismanagement (mashing Phytel and Explorys; IBM’s ‘bluewashing’ acquired companies; the inept ‘offering management’ product development process; the crushed innovation) plus inroads made by competition (those upstarts again!). What’s unusual is the sourcing from former engineers–IEEE is the trade group for tech and engineering professionals. The former IBM-ers were willing to talk in detail and depth, albeit anonymously. 

Der Spiegel takes the German and clinical perspective of what IBM Watson Health has gone wrong, starting with the well-documented failures of Watson at hospitals in Marburg and Giessen. The CEO of Rhön-Klinikum AG, which owns the university hospital at Marburg, reviewed it in action in February. “The performance was unacceptable — the medical understanding at IBM just wasn’t there.” It stumbled over and past diagnoses even a first-year resident would have considered. The test at Marburg ended before a single patient was treated.

The article also outlines several reasons why, including that Watson, after all this time, still has trouble crunching real doctor and physical data. It does not comprehend physician shorthand and negation language, which this Editor imagines is multiplied in languages other than American English. “Some are even questioning whether Watson is more of a marketing bluff by IBM than a crowning achievement in the world of artificial intelligence.” More scathingly, the Rhön-Klinikum AG CEO: “IBM acted as if it had reinvented medicine from scratch. In reality, they were all gloss and didn’t have a plan. Our experts had to take them by the hand.”

Hardly The Blue Wave of the Future. Perhaps the analogy is Dr. Watson as The Great Oz.

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