First International Business Machines Corp. took on Jeopardy and won with its Watson cognitive computing engine. Now, it's taking aim at animal welfare.
IBM will reveal the first 10 apps using Watson for commercial purposes on Wednesday, pushing into such areas as retail management, travel planning, medicine and computer security. Among the first apps will be Sofie, a new service made by LifeLearn Inc. of Guelph, Ont., that acts as a real-time reference for emergency medicine for veterinarians. The company has more more than 20 years of experience making business and education software for animal medicine, but it's just one of 100 IBM partners spread across 20 countries building Watson apps.
Most will remember Big Blue's machine for its stint chiming in with trivia on Alex Trebek's game show, but IBM hopes the Watson engine will become big business. Earlier this year, the company invested $1-billion for further development, dedicating 2,000 employees and a separate HQ for the business unit in New York City's "Silicon Alley." CEO Virginia Rometty has suggested the division could make $10-billion (U.S.) annually within 10 years. Developers get free access to the tools, and IBM takes a share of the revenue once the app is deployed in the market.
IBM pitches cloud-based Watson as a potential operating system for big data sets, with a particular focus on so-called unstructured data (multiple sources, multiple formats) and also on a "natural language" interface for users. It operates like a smarter search engine that doesn't need special keywords and displays results of its findings according to relevance (that's how it won on Jeopardy – it didn't actually know the exact "question" every time, but it was able to very quickly discern the likeliest answer).
"Our very early experiments were in health care," says John Gordon, vice-president of IBM's Watson Group. For instance, a hospital in Thailand is building an app to assist doctors in assessing cancer treatments, @Point of Care in New Jersey is building an app for general practitioners. While Health Canada and the U.S Federal Health Agency have strict rules for the provision of human health-care information and advice, animal medicine is a more loosely regulated field. And in some ways, general practice veterinarians have a tougher job managing multiple species and specialties.
"It's kind of terrifying when emergencies come in, there's a time issue … there's too much to have everything in your head," says Craig Etherington, a vet at the Morningside Pet Hospital in Toronto, who graduated in 2013 and has been assisting LifeLearn in its beta testing. "You're kind of a dentist, a dermatologist, an emergency doctor. Most of the time, you're wearing different hats."
Users can access Sofie on any Web-connected device, tablet, phone or PC. It will launch as an invite-only beta, but LifeLearn expects to sell subscriptions for it in the future. Right now, the app is limited to dog and cat care, and is focused on emergency situations. Dr. Etherington offers the example of a "blocked" tom cat, a somewhat common but potentially lethal issue where a cat is unable to urinate. Remembering the right dosage for painkillers, and fluid drips and the desired potassium blood levels could require a quick check in a reference book.
"The old joke is, 'Mrs. Klein, I'll just step out for a minute,'" says Dr. Etherington, who would never think of opening a text book in front of a patient. "You can use it to confirm things you already know, even doses or diagnostic tests, or you can ask it things you don't know anything about."
As LifeLearn CEO James Carroll says, the other issue unique to vets is costs. "We have dozens of specialties that didn't exist only a few decades ago," says Mr. Carroll. Increasingly, people "see their pets as family and not as animals – for the first time people wanted to look at the options when animals were in renal failure."
The rapid expansion of available drugs and surgeries puts more pressure on veterinarians to provide not just treatment plans, but financially viable options, he says. When suggesting likely treatment options, the Sofie app will factor in such costs as expensive tests or scanning equipment like MRIs. "The gold standard stuff is great – it doesn't reflect the challenges of most practitioners," says Mr. Carroll.
But just in case you think you could just download Sofie and cut out the middle man: "It's still all in vet speak. It's not readable unless someone spent a long time with a medical thesaurus," says Dr. Etherington.