I’ve written several times about IBM’s Watson machine learning system and its potential applications to health care. To be honest, many of these applications sound unlikely, at least at present, and that skepticism doesn’t apply only to IBM by any means. Now word comes that a collaboration between IBM and the M. D. Anderson people (announced in 2013) has fallen apart.
But to be fair to IBM (and to Watson!) a similar arrangement from around the same time with Sloan-Kettering seems to have been more successful. Along with Quest Diagostics, they seem to be in the process of launching an actual product. How good it is, and how successful it will be, there is no telling yet, but that’s the end result of a development program, and it’s a goal that the M. D. Anderson work seems to have missed quite thoroughly.
That failure seems to be partly (or perhaps more than partly) on the Anderson side of the collaboration. Matthew Herper quotes reporting from the Cancer Letter and the Houston Chronicle that makes things sound quite odd:
In a strange twist, MD Anderson would pay for the whole thing, eventually giving $39.2 million to IBM and $21.2 million to PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was hired to create a business plan around the product. According to the Washington Post, at least $50 million of the money came from Low Taek Jho, a flamboyant Malaysian financier whose business dealings are reportedly now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Usually, companies pay research centers to do research on their products; in this case, MD Anderson paid for the privilege, although it would have apparently also owned the product. This was a “very unusual business arrangement,” says Vinay Prasad, an oncologist at Oregon Health & Science University.
According to the audit report, Chin went around normal procedures to pay for the expensive undertaking, even making sure individual payments to IBM were below a threshold that would have required her to get approval from MD Anderson’s board. She also didn’t get approval from the information technology department.
To round it off, it appears that the donations from Jho may not have even been received yet, which really does make a person wonder what’s going on. But it’s worth noting that there was good press about this effort along the way, with stories about how well the software was doing at diagnosis, etc. Something to consider when you come across stories written in the same vein, for sure. Wait until the project delivers before making it down as a success. . .