Can Supercomputing Help Cure Health Care?

By Michael Feldman

September 15, 2011

The deep thinking supercomputer that vanquished two of the most accomplished Jeopardy champs in the game’s history is about to begin its first commercial gig. IBM Watson is being enlisted by WellPoint, one of the largest health insurers in the US, to be its first cyber-healthcare analyst. Specifically, the IBM Watson technology will be used for applications that can suggest patient diagnosis and treatment options for doctors in the WellPoint’s Blue Cross, Blue Shield provider network.

According to the press release, IBM and WellPoint will develop the healthcare applications, adapting Watson’s Question Answering technology, aka DeepQA, for the medical domain. But the actual hardware will be somewhat different. An article in Computerworld reports that the machine used to host the WellPoint apps will be a smaller version than the ten rack, 90-node Power 750 cluster used in the Jeopardy series in February, but because of optimizations since then, will have the same computational muscle. Fundamentally though, the system will incorporate all the ”big data” analytics smarts as its game-show precursor.

Here is IBM’s pitch from the announcement:

In recent years, few areas have advanced as rapidly as health care. For physicians, incorporating hundreds of thousands of articles into practice and applying them to patient care is a significant challenge. Watson can sift through an equivalent of about 1 million books or roughly 200 million pages of data, and analyze this information and provide precise responses in less than three seconds. Using this extraordinary capability WellPoint is expected to enable Watson to allow physicians to easily coordinate medical data programmed into Watson with specified patient factors, to help identify the most likely diagnosis and treatment options in complex cases. Watson is expected to serve as a powerful tool in the physician’s decision making process.

It’s a well-known problem in medicine. According to WellPoint, the amount of medical information is doubling every five years. And while there are reams of research studies on just about every imaginable disease and medical condition, it’s all but impossible for front-line physicians to digest the information in real time and incorporate it into their practice. To Watson though, all those research papers, along with the related medical texts, case studies and patient health records are just data points to be correlated and weighed.

What WellPoint and IBM envision is a system that can mine all that information and spit out patient diagnosis and treatment options to the doctor. The stated goal is to reduce ineffective medical treatments, and thus costs. The first area where it will be applied is cancer care, one of the most information-dense and challenging medical domains for doctors. WellPoint says it expects to start deploying the Watson technology in early 2012, beginning with clinical pilots using selected doctors.

WellPoint execs, who have characterized the technology as a “game changer,” are exuberant about the project. “The implications for healthcare are extraordinary,” gushed Lori Beer, WellPoint’s executive vice president of Enterprise Business Services, in the Computerworld report. “We believe new solutions built on the IBM Watson technology will be valuable for our provider partners, and more importantly, give us new tools to help ensure our members are receiving the best possible care.”

The effort is not without its critics though. In another story from the Indianapolis Star, some physicians expressed doubt about such a system, noting that well-known diseases and conditions are relatively easy to diagnosis, while rarer ones don’t have a lot of data to draw from.

A more general concern is that the technology will be used to maximize the profits rather than health. Unfortunately, the private health care system is motivated by money, first, and patient outcomes, second. Unleashing a technology into that framework certainly has the potential for some unfortunate consequences. Wendell Potter, who used to head of corporate communications for health insurer CIGNA, and is now a vocal critic of the for-profit health care industry, reflects that concern. “My fear is that tools like this will be used to ultimately figure out ways to deny treatments that doctors recommend for their patients,” says Potter, in the Indianapolis Star article.

The software could apply this insidiously. Imagine if drug X was 50 percent effective for a condition, and cost $100 dollars a month, while drug Y was 80 percent effective, but cost $1000 dollars a month. If the cost/benefit of the treatment is applied only quantitatively, drug X is going to be presented as the top choice to the doctor. Of course, such decisions are made every day by real live health care providers, but behind the veneer of a smart machine, another layer of obfuscation would added.

WellPoint is well aware of such criticism and maintains Watson’s results will always be reviewed by a doctor, who will have the final say-so on the diagnosis and treatment. But it’s not too hard to imagine some future version of this application that does away the doctor, and interfaces directly to patients. At that point, maybe Watson will have to be deployed with some malpractice insurance.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Bill Gropp – Pursuing the Next Big Thing at NCSA

March 28, 2017

About eight months ago Bill Gropp was elevated to acting director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Read more…

By John Russell

UK to Launch Six Major HPC Centers

March 27, 2017

Six high performance computing centers will be formally launched in the U.K. later this week intended to provide wider access to HPC resources to U.K. Read more…

By John Russell

AI in the News: Rao in at Intel, Ng out at Baidu, Nvidia on at Tencent Cloud

March 26, 2017

Just as AI has become the leitmotif of the advanced scale computing market, infusing much of the conversation about HPC in commercial and industrial spheres, it also is impacting high-level management changes in the industry. Read more…

By Doug Black

Scalable Informatics Ceases Operations

March 23, 2017

On the same day we reported on the uncertain future for HPC compiler company PathScale, we are sad to learn that another HPC vendor, Scalable Informatics, is closing its doors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Quants Achieving Maximum Compute Power without the Learning Curve

The financial services industry is a fast-paced and data-intensive environment, and financial firms are realizing that they must modernize their IT infrastructures and invest in high performance computing (HPC) tools in order to survive. Read more…

‘Strategies in Biomedical Data Science’ Advances IT-Research Synergies

March 23, 2017

“Strategies in Biomedical Data Science: Driving Force for Innovation” by Jay A. Etchings is both an introductory text and a field guide for anyone working with biomedical data. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Launches New Machine Learning Journal

March 22, 2017

On Monday, Google announced plans to launch a new peer review journal and “ecosystem” Read more…

By John Russell

Swiss Researchers Peer Inside Chips with Improved X-Ray Imaging

March 22, 2017

Peering inside semiconductor chips using x-ray imaging isn’t new, but the technique hasn’t been especially good or easy to accomplish. Read more…

By John Russell

Bill Gropp – Pursuing the Next Big Thing at NCSA

March 28, 2017

About eight months ago Bill Gropp was elevated to acting director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Japanese Supercomputing Project Targets Exascale

March 14, 2017

Another Japanese supercomputing project was revealed this week, this one from emerging supercomputer maker, ExaScaler Inc., and Keio University. The partners are working on an original supercomputer design with exascale aspirations. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Debuts HGX-1 for Cloud; Announces Fujitsu AI Deal

March 9, 2017

On Monday Nvidia announced a major deal with Fujitsu to help build an AI supercomputer for RIKEN using 24 DGX-1 servers. Read more…

By John Russell

For IBM/OpenPOWER: Success in 2017 = (Volume) Sales

January 11, 2017

To a large degree IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation have done what they said they would – assembling a substantial and growing ecosystem and bringing Power-based products to market, all in about three years. Read more…

By John Russell

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular offerings such as Caffe, Theano, and Torch. Read more…

By John Russell

Lighting up Aurora: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of the DOE’s Upcoming 200 Petaflops Supercomputer

December 1, 2016

In April 2015, U.S. Department of Energy Undersecretary Franklin Orr announced that Intel would be the prime contractor for Aurora: Read more…

By Jan Rowell

Leading Solution Providers

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling was pretty much the exclusive realm of the Cray-2 and IBM mainframe class products. That’s changing. We are now seeing an emergence of x86 class server products with exotic plumbing technology ranging from Direct-to-Chip to servers and storage completely immersed in a dielectric fluid. Read more…

By Steve Campbell

Enlisting Deep Learning in the War on Cancer

December 7, 2016

Sometime in Q2 2017 the first ‘results’ of the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer (JDACS4C) will become publicly available according to Rick Stevens. He leads one of three JDACS4C pilot projects pressing deep learning (DL) into service in the War on Cancer. Read more…

By John Russell

BioTeam’s Berman Charts 2017 HPC Trends in Life Sciences

January 4, 2017

Twenty years ago high performance computing was nearly absent from life sciences. Today it’s used throughout life sciences and biomedical research. Genomics and the data deluge from modern lab instruments are the main drivers, but so is the longer-term desire to perform predictive simulation in support of Precision Medicine (PM). There’s even a specialized life sciences supercomputer, ‘Anton’ from D.E. Shaw Research, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is standing up its second Anton 2 and actively soliciting project proposals. There’s a lot going on. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Startup Advances Auto-Parallelization’s Promise

January 23, 2017

The shift from single core to multicore hardware has made finding parallelism in codes more important than ever, but that hasn’t made the task of parallel programming any easier. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Technique Propels Deep Learning at Scale

February 21, 2017

Researchers from Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL) have adapted a well-known HPC communication technique to boost the speed and scale of their neural network training and now they are sharing their implementation with the larger deep learning community. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU Benchmarking: Haswell Versus POWER8

June 2, 2015

With OpenPOWER activity ramping up and IBM’s prominent role in the upcoming DOE machines Summit and Sierra, it’s a good time to look at how the IBM POWER CPU stacks up against the x86 Xeon Haswell CPU from Intel. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IDG to Be Bought by Chinese Investors; IDC to Spin Out HPC Group

January 19, 2017

US-based publishing and investment firm International Data Group, Inc. (IDG) will be acquired by a pair of Chinese investors, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co., Ltd. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This