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IBM CEO Ginni Rometty: “Cognitive Computing Is the Future of Healthcare”

April 12, 2016
by Mark Hagland
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IBM CEO Ginni Rometty offered her perspectives on how cognitive computing can help fuel the healthcare of the future

In a wide-ranging keynote address that included aspirational statements, updates, and announcements, Ginni Rometty, the chairwoman, president, and CEO of the Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, on Tuesday morning shared her vision of cognitive computing with attendees at the World Health Care Congress, being held this week at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Telling her audience that “Healthcare has been central to us for a long time,” Rometty framed the broad work that IBM is doing in cognitive computing in terms of what she sees as its potential to change the healthcare industry in three fundamental ways: with regard to “how to reinvent discovery,” how to “help change how delivery happens,” and how to “transform wellness.” Indeed, she said, “Cognitive computing is the future of healthcare,” and said that IBM’s work in that area, embodied in its development of IBM Watson, its cognitive computing entity, which IBM data scientists and technologists are using to transform knowledge in a broad range of areas.

Framing IBM’s broad strategic thrust around cognitive computing, Rometty told her audience, “Analytics, cloud, mobile—those are all very important to be a part of the digital society and economy. But when everyone’s digital, then what? I always think of digital as foundational; I believe it is disruptive… It is the dawn of a new era. Think of digital business and business intelligence put together, and that will give you cognitive,” she said. Very importantly, she said, “It’s data that’s visible and invisible.” In fact, she said, in terms of the digital data available worldwide, the volume of that data is hard to comprehend, as it is now estimated to fill 150 exabytes, or “3 million times all the written books in the world. This year, the volume of digital data will reach one zettabyte, or the equivalent of 30 million times all the data in all the books in the world.” And yet, she quickly added, 80 percent of data is unstructured, and in healthcare, that means data in such stores as doctors’ notes, patient monitoring machines, wearables, and sound forms.

Importantly, Rometty said, “That invisible data will now be visible. And when you combine those together,” she said, transformative capabilities will be possible. To name just two examples, she noted that “Weather influences asthma. Exposure to crime influences your mental and physical health. This is why we’ve created the Watson cloud,” she noted, adding that “We’ve spent $4 billion to acquire Phytel, Explorys, Merge, Truven, plus the Apple Research Kit,” and other entities, to help fuel the acquisition and analytics of data as part of that broader process.

Ginni Rometty, IBM's CEO, at the World Health Care Congress

As for Watson itself, Rometty told her audience, “We started over 10 years ago in research. And we made the decision to debut it publicly five years ago on ‘Jeopardy!’ simply to debut Watson’s question-and-answer capability. Today, Watson does 30 things,” she noted, adding that “We’ve been teaching Watson to see things like x-rays and images. So healthcare was in fact Watson’s first career choice.”

With regard to the goal of reinventing discovery using Watson, Rometty told her audience, “Think about a system that learns. It’s great at forming hidden connections. If you could test your hypotheses faster, it could help us make progress in a range of areas—genomic medicine, that’s an obvious area. And it could be used for drug discovery, or for the discovery of alternative uses for existing drugs—repurposing. In addition, she noted, it could be used to support clinical trial matching, something very much needed, as only 5 percent of cancer patients are currently participating in clinical trials. It is complex work, she noted, involving Watson coming to understand processes, protocols, guidelines. The work around cancer clinical trial work started with breast cancer and has moved into lung, colorectal, and gastrointestinal cancer clinical trial work.

Already collaborating with Novartis, Rometty said, “Just last week, we announced we’re working with Pfizer. We envision an ecosystem of people working together, and we see it already happening. We’re working with Pfizer on Parkinson’s, collecting the data on sensors, mobile, and in other forms.”

Meanwhile, Rometty said, “Perhaps the most exciting of all three is how to reimagine delivery: value-based outcomes, as well as extending how healthcare is delivered beyond obvious borders; and personalized treatments. As widely reported, we began that Watson for Oncology work with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center” (MSKCC) in New York, with Watson analyzing patient medical records, including both structured and unstructured data, and identifying treatment plans, and rating and ranking treatment options, with supportive evidence, for physicians. That work involved a core set of information that encompassed 14,000 hours of curated data from MSKCC, 300 medical publications, and numerous other sources, she noted. And now the work that began at MSKCC is branching out to work with the Cleveland Clinic, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and cancer hospitals and other hospitals in India, Thailand, and China.