Watson for Oncology isn’t an AI that fights cancer, it’s an unproven mechanical turk that represents the guesses of a small group of doctorsOn November 13, 2017 by Kenna
There are 50 hospitals on 5 continents that use Watson for Oncology, an IBM product that charges doctors to ingest their cancer patients’ records and then make treatment recommendations and suggest journal articles for further reading.
The doctors who use the service assume that it’s a data-driven AI that’s using data from participating hospitals to create massive data-sets of cancer treatments and outcomes and refine its inferences. That’s how IBM advertises it. But that’s not how it works.
In reality, Watson for Oncology is a “mechanical turk” — a human-driven engine masquerading as an artificial intelligence. The way it actually works is by convening a small panel of cancer experts from Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, who come up with recommendations for specific patient profiles. These recommendations represent the best guesses of these experts, supported by medical literature and personal experience.
IBM has never allowed an independent study of Watson for Oncology. No followup is done to evaluate whether its recommendations help patients.
There are several problems with this approach. First, there is the deceptive marketing of Watson for Oncology to doctors and patients, who believe they are getting a global, data-driven, empirical recommendation, as opposed to the subjective judgment of a small panel of experts.
Then there’s the problem with the Sloan-Kettering doctors’ experience. The doctors work at one of America’s top hospitals, which means that they see the kinds of Americans who can afford the most expensive treatments. These Americans’ life circumstances, histories, and treatment experiences are massively atypical of many of the people whom Watson for Oncology will recommend treatments (it’s a microcosm of the WEIRD problem in psych research).
Further, Watson for Oncology really seems to struggle with ingesting patient records. This is really key: if the Sloan Kettering doctors’ recommendations have any validity, they are absolutely dependent on being correctly matched with patients diagnoses and facts. Behind the scenes, IBM has to pay humans to review Watson’s matches between diagnoses and the Sloan Kettering profiles.
Finally, there’s the lack of independent scrutiny and feedback. In her seminal 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil describes the most urgent red flags for automated systems that can go terribly wrong. One of the most important is the lack of a feedback loop. When Amazon uses machine learning to change its page layouts, it measures sales before and after the intervention, to see if it works. Watson doesn’t do this: it blithely makes treatment recommendations that could kill people, and no one ever checks to see whether they’re any good.
“IBM ought to quit trying to cure cancer,” said Peter Greulich, a former IBM brand manager who has written several books about IBM’s history and modern challenges. “They turned the marketing engine loose without controlling how to build and construct a product.”
Greulich said IBM needs to invest more money in Watson and hire more people to make it successful. In the 1960s, he said, IBM spent about 11.5 times its annual earnings to develop its mainframe computer, a line of business that still accounts for much of its profitability today.
If it were to make an equivalent investment in Watson, it would need to spend $137 billion. “The only thing it’s spent that much money on is stock buybacks,” Greulich said.
IBM said it created the market for artificial intelligence and is pleased with the pace of Watson’s growth, noting that it and other new business units grew by more than $20 billion in the past three years. “It took Facebook and Amazon more than 13 years to grow $20 billion,” the company said in a statement.
IBM pitched its Watson supercomputer as a revolution in cancer care. It’s nowhere close
[Casey Ross @caseymross and Ike Swetlitz/Statnews]
A fantastic behind-the-scenes clip from Blue Planet II: The Blue Planet II team dive to over 700 meters to see what happens to a whale carcass on the seabed. Whilst filming sharks as they feast, the sharks start to take a worrying interest in the submarine!
Acorn woodpeckers create acorn granaries that hold tens of thousands of acorns. Scientists are especially interested in their living arrangements, once described by Cold War ornithologists as communism.
In a small-scale study, researchers have shown that algorithms can analyze brain scans to determine whether an individual has suicidal thoughts. During the study, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University scientists mentioned words like “death,” “trouble,” and “carefree” to individuals undergoing fMRI scans of their brains. Apparently those kinds of words spur different […]
You can definitely increase the breadth of your vocabulary over time by reading constantly, and you’ll probably even get a bit faster if you do it long enough. But there’s a more streamlined way to become a better reader: Vocab1 and 7 Speed Reading EX. These two apps can vastly improve your abilities without sacrificing […]
Lurking just beneath Microsoft Excel’s instantly understandable spreadsheet surface is a world of robust automation tools. Visual Basic for Applications allows you to perform complex data processing, and you can harness its power with this Microsoft VBA Bundle, available now in the Boing Boing Store for $29.99. This duo of in-depth courses will teach you […]
You don’t necessarily need advanced graphics programming skills to create immersive VR — just an AppGameKit license. To get you started with this beginner-friendly game development environment, we are offering the Complete AppGameKit VR Starter’s Kit in the Boing Boing Store for $29.99. AppGameKit makes it easy to build all kinds of games, from retro […]