IBM puts Watson to work on cancer with new patient-adviser tool

It will tap natural language processing and offer personalized advice

IBM Watson Web San Francisco
IBM's Watson West hub in San Francisco. Credit: Tony Avelar/IBM

IBM is developing a new weapon in the battle against cancer that will put Watson to work in a new way. Partnering with the American Cancer Society, IBM is building a virtual adviser that uses machine learning to give patients personalized information and advice.

The adviser will begin by looking at the type of cancer the patient has, the stage of the disease and the treatments administered so far. Using that and other data, it will try to offer care advice and answer patients' questions.

Watson's voice recognition and natural language processing will enable users to ask questions and receive audible responses.

A person with breast cancer, for instance, could ask the adviser what might be causing her pain. Having learned from the experiences of people with similar characteristics, the tool can respond with information about symptoms and options for self care based on the patient's situation.

Over time, the adviser will become increasingly personalized as it learns more about the user, resulting in recommendations that match her preferences, such as for online support groups over telephone calls.

To create the tool, IBM and the cancer society will tap their massive combined stores of data and use it to train Watson. Included in that data will be Cancer.org's 14,000 pages of detailed information on more than 70 cancer topics as well as the cancer society's National Cancer Information Center’s aggregated data about self-management, support groups, wellness activities and cancer education.

The tool will also surface insights from IBM's Watson Health Cloud.

"It’s about providing the right information to the right people at the right time,” said Gary Reedy, CEO of the cancer society.

More than 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year. IBM's effort is one of several in the tech industry that aim to make it easier to share and analyze large amounts of data to help treat patients and, ultimately, advance cures for diseases. Intel has a project called the Collaborative Cancer Cloud, for instance, which will allow hospitals and universities to more easily share genomic, imaging and clinical patient data for research purposes.

Ultimately, the cancer society and IBM aim to integrate their patient adviser with IBM’s Watson for Oncology offering for doctors.

In related news, IBM on Tuesday also launched a new program called the IBM Health Corps that aims to help communities address health challenges around the world.

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