Skip to Main Content

The elite team of engineers and medical specialists assembled by IBM’s Watson Health division had the innocuous code name “Project Josephine,” but its mission could not have been more urgent: to fix the artificial intelligence software at the core of the company’s campaign to tackle the $7 trillion global health care market.

The predicament faced by IBM officials, STAT has found, was that it could not get its software to reliably understand and analyze language in patient medical records. That was critical for the company to deliver on multimillion-dollar contracts with hospitals and drug companies.


To fix the problem, IBM recruited 10 of its smartest minds in the spring of 2017, according to an internal slide deck obtained by STAT. Their charge was to quickly improve Watson’s comprehension, and ensure it could perform consistently on a range of tasks, from matching patients with clinical trials to suggesting optimal cancer treatments. The team was to be given nine months to turn things around and “improve accuracy,” “standardize terminology,” and “reduce overlap” among the groups working on a dozen different health products.

Unlock this article by subscribing to STAT+ and enjoy your first 30 days free!

  • If IBM’s AI/NLP team would only open its eyes to the opportunity that is already ripe, they would discover where their tools could instantly transform nationwide healthcare efficiency; recognition of patient (not provider) healthcare language is all that’s needed to automatically smart route appointment assignment via online scheduling platforms like NextDocSolutions (my company). An automated attendant that understands “6 days of atraumatic knee pain in a 32 year old female” would make a 10x larger financial impact than one that understands 12 different classification schemes for leukemia. If the team at IBM recognizes this before the team at Google Duplex, IBM will restore its value and credibility in a single stroke. Great article, Casey and Ike!

  • Yet another casualty of the slavish worship of “shareholder value“ (aka quarterly profits). If there is ever a Nuremberg for economists, the propagators of this pernicious concept will find themselves in the dock.

Comments are closed.