IBM’s withdrawal from Watson highlights broader health struggles for AI


Ten years ago, Watson, the artificial intelligence system of International Business Machine Corp., outperformed humans in the “Jeopardy!”

The feat was supposed to herald a change in the way machines answered questions big and small, opening up new revenue streams for Big Blue specifically and Big Tech in general. A key target: healthcare, a trillion-dollar industry that many say is fraught with inefficiencies that some tech advocates say AI could cure.

A decade later, reality has not delivered on that promise. IBM is now exploring the sale of Watson Health, a unit whose flagship product is supposed to help doctors diagnose and cure cancer.

IBM spent several billion dollars on acquisitions to build Watson. Former IBM senior executive John Kelly once touted the initiative as a “gamble on the ranch” movement. It did not live up to expectations. Watson Health has struggled for market share in the US and abroad and is currently unprofitable.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google DeepMind unit, which developed a Go-playing algorithm that beat a champion human player in 2016, later launched several health-related initiatives focused on chronic diseases. He has also lost money in recent years and has had privacy concerns about how health data was collected.

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