App as fitness instructor? Watson-based app aims to keep you healthier

IBM and Pathway Genomics working on mobile app that uses personal history and genetics to assess risks and plan exercise

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By mid-2015, you may be able to use an app to find out what exercises to do, what to eat and what medical tests to ask your doctor for... all based on your medical history and your genetic makeup.

San Diego-based Pathway Genomics Corp., a company focused on genetic testing, announced today that it has teamed up with IBM's Watson Group to create a mobile app designed to help prevent disease and improve users' overall wellness.

Using Watson's natural language-focused artificial intelligence (AI), a user should be able to ask the app, dubbed Pathway Panorama, questions like: What foods should I be eating? What's my risk for cancer or cardiovascular disease? What's the best exercise for me?

"If you ask what kind of exercise should you be doing today, it should specifically tell you, based on your genetics, what exercise is better for you," said Jim Plante, CEO of Pathway Genomics. "We want to help people assemble the best path for themselves -- for wellness, to prevent disease and to reach their health goals."

The app, expected to be released in the first half of 2015 for Apple's iOS and Android, uses Watson's AI capabilities to cull through distributed sets of big data for the information needed to answer users' questions.

IBM's Watson supercomputer came to fame nearly four years ago when ittook on a few champions from the popular game show Jeopardy. The supercomputer, which analysts at the time called one of the biggest advances in decades of computing, easily bested its human challengers.

What made Watson different is its ability to seemingly converse with humans, understanding questions spoken in natural language and being able to offer up answers.

With Watson-like technology now working in the cloud, Pathway Genomics can use the AI engine to help people get their own questions answered.

What makes those questions so difficult, according to Plante, is that the information needed to answer them is widely scattered.

"We have lots of different sources of information that reside in a lot of different places," he explained. "Our electronic health records are in one place. Our lab tests are in a different place. Then you factor in our physical location, our general health and medical records, scientific studies and journals -- they're all in different places. If you have a question, you have no one place to go to get it answered."

The Pathway Panorama app can factor in a user's location and the weather, along with their health records and any medical conditions. It's also set up to consider the user's genetic makeup.

The issue is that few people have their genetic information.

"A lot of people won't have it initially," said Plante. "They'll download the application and allow it to access other types of information. It might give them health questionnaires about their family history of disease, their health, diet and exercise. Then it might say it would be a good idea to talk to your physician about ordering this test and then that information could be uploaded to the application."

If a user's doctor, for example, thinks it's a good idea to call for a genetic test, he or she could order one.

Even without genetic information, the app can work with the data it does have.

Plante also noted that users' general and non-personal data will be stored in the cloud, though any personal data -- such as genetic information -- would be stored in one of Pathway's secured in-house databases.

Plante said there will be a free version of the app, along with a paid-for premium service.

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