GE, IBM Race to Deliver on A.I. Hype in Healthcare

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it will take years to clinically validate the impact of such technologies across a large number of patients, Flare Capital’s Greeley says.

The skeptical view is that Watson Health and its competitors are promising capabilities that are still being built and perfected, but are not yet “off the shelf” products, Greeley says. Other observers have gone further. Last month on CNBC, Social Capital founder and CEO Chamath Palihapitiya called Watson a “joke” and said IBM is good at sales and marketing, but not innovating in A.I. (I’ve heard similar charges from machine learning startup executives in Boston. But it’s a common refrain to bash big companies’ innovation efforts.)

“You hear a lot of cynicism around, really, what does Watson do?” Greeley says. “I think it’s going to be very powerful. I don’t know if they’ve really developed a large market opportunity of use cases.”

GE: “This is not a research project”

And now, Watson Health faces a big challenger in GE Healthcare, though the companies have different strengths and approaches.

“We’re not necessarily chasing IBM because our strategy is different, and we have a different product portfolio than they do,” says Charles Koontz, GE Healthcare’s chief digital officer and the CEO of GE Healthcare IT. Still, he acknowledges the two companies will undoubtedly be competing in this sector.

Rhee doesn’t sound worried about competitors, touting the time and investment IBM has put into building its A.I. capabilities, which includes “hundreds of patents,” he says.

“While Watson Health is only two years old, the work we’ve been doing in A.I. and machine learning and cognitive [computing] is over a decade old,” Rhee says. “I think we’ve got a significant head start on [competitors], and we’re demonstrating incredible value.”

Nevertheless, GE has been investing in cloud computing, A.I. systems, and other software technologies in recent years. In 2013, GE Healthcare made plans to invest $500 million in software initiatives, and GE overall committed to adding 5,000 digital-focused jobs worldwide by 2018, a number that includes internal hires, contractors, and software staff at partner companies and organizations, a spokeswoman says. GE Healthcare alone currently has about 5,000 software workers, she says.

With its vast resources, GE “could catch up” to the “aggressive” IBM in healthcare computing, Greeley says. (GE is a “strategic partner” of Greeley’s Flare Capital, and the corporation’s venture capital arm has co-invested in startups with Flare, he says.)

So far, GE has not acquired any healthcare-focused A.I. companies, a spokeswoman says, although Greeley thinks that could change if company executives feel like “they’re starting to lag the market.” Instead, the company’s approach has involved teaming up with UC San Francisco’s Center for Digital Health Innovation, Boston Children’s Hospital, and most recently Partners HealthCare, whose facilities include Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The UCSF partnership, announced in November, is initially focused on developing “deep learning” algorithms that analyze medical images to help identify patients that need follow-up or intervention by doctors. An example is a software tool being developed to identify scans that might indicate a patient has a collapsed lung, so doctors can prioritize and more quickly treat patients in need.

With Boston Children’s Hospital, GE Healthcare is developing digital tools to help radiologists of varying expertise interpret brain MRI scans, in order to better diagnose and treat neural diseases in children. That partnership was also announced in November.

The collaboration with Partners HealthCare, announced in May, is larger in scope. The 10-year partnership is aimed at developing deep learning applications that will impact all aspects of healthcare, from diagnosis and treatment to handling administrative tasks. That sounds broad, but many of the details are still vague.

GE and Partners are initially focusing on developing diagnostic imaging applications, which they say might help doctors assess the prognosis for someone who suffered a stroke, identify bone fractures, or track tumor growth or shrinkage after a patient takes a new kind of drug. Later, GE and Partners say, they might develop A.I. tools for areas like molecular pathology, genomics, and population health.

Koontz declined to say how much money GE is investing in the Partners deal or how many GE employees will work on the project. Some of the work will be done by software engineers and data scientists at GE’s San Ramon, CA, office, and there will also be GE employees working side-by-side with Partners staff in Boston, Koontz says. Some of the key collaborators at Partners will be the 30-some employees in its Center for Clinical Data Science, which is less than a year old and is a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Mark Michalski, the center’s executive director, gives an example of how A.I. technology might progress in radiology: An initial application might be assessing whether a tumor seen in a computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen is cancerous. A year or two later, the software might automatically be able to measure the size of tumors in images, something that doctors currently do by hand, he says.

“While that seems like a minor thing, it actually becomes pretty interesting because now maybe your radiologist has gotten more efficient, maybe more precise, and it means maybe less variability in the measurements they’re taking,” Michalski says.

And once those precise measurements become common in medicine, Michalski says, healthcare systems could accumulate data that enables them to better understand the health of large groups of patients—and potentially improve treatment while lowering costs.

GE Healthcare has said it plans to develop a library of hundreds of commercially available healthcare apps by 2020. “This is not a research project,” Koontz says. “The way to think about it is we’re going into business with some of our biggest and most prestigious customers. And we’re developing software together to take to the marketplace.”

The first products hatched by GE and its various partners could hit the market as soon as early 2019, a GE spokeswoman says. Any apps that go beyond advising doctors and … Next Page »

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