IBM’s Watson AI system wowed the world on Jeopardy! 10 years ago with a $1 million win over two human brainiacs.
In the years that followed, the company famously flailed as it tried to leverage the publicity.
The strategy seemed to be positioning Watson as a product line that would not only continue to dazzle AI enthusiasts but also outfit entire industries with AI.
The New York Times recounts the corporation’s major missteps and considers Watson’s future—don’t bury it because it’s not dead yet—in a 2,500-word feature updated July 17.
Reporter Steve Lohr interviewed IBM insiders and close observers en route to finding Watson’s current leadership evidently humbled, cautioned and determined to pursue more sober goals.
If it succeeds at last, it may yet prove something of a leader in the AI revolution.
“[T]he grand visions of the past are gone. Today, instead of being a shorthand for technological prowess, Watson stands out as a sobering example of the pitfalls of technological hype and hubris around A.I.,” Lohr writes. “The march of artificial intelligence through the mainstream economy, it turns out, will be more step-by-step evolution than cataclysmic revolution.”
Healthcare AI fired the imaginations of IBM’s technical product developers as much as, if not more than, any other AI-ripe industry, Lohr shows.
Here as in other spheres, things started out with big ideas and considerable promise before fizzling out in clinical translations.
IBM tried many approaches with Watson for Genomics, for example, before finally pulling its plug late last year.
This followed the 2016 abandonment of Oncology Expert Advisor, an exorbitant and aggressively ambitious project with MD Anderson Cancer Center.
And then there was IBM’s most sprawling, highest-profile venture to drive AI into healthcare: Watson Health.
Lohr notes that the company invested billions in that business, spinning it off as a separate entity in 2015.
The investment included more than $4 billion to buy up companies with medical data, billing records and diagnostic images on hundreds of millions of patients, Lohr reminds.
“Much of that money, it seems clear, they are never going to get back,” Lohr writes. “Now IBM is paring back Watson Health and reviewing the future of the business. One option being explored, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, is to sell off Watson Health.”