WSJ US BusinessIBM’s Retreat From Watson Highlights Broader AI Struggles in Health

February 20, 20210

Ten years ago, International Business Machine Corp.’s artificial intelligence system Watson bested humans at the quiz show “Jeopardy!”

The feat was supposed to herald a shift in the way machines served up answers to questions big and small, opening up new revenue streams for Big Blue specifically and Big Tech more generally. A key target: healthcare, a trillion-dollar industry many say is saddled with inefficiencies that some tech advocates say AI could cure.

A decade later, reality has fallen short of that promise. IBM is now exploring the sale of Watson Health, a unit whose marquee product was supposed to help doctors diagnose and cure cancer.

IBM spent several billion dollars on acquisitions to build up Watson. Former senior IBM executive John Kelly once touted the initiative as a “bet the ranch” move. It didn’t live up to the hype. Watson Health has struggled for market share in the U.S. and abroad and currently isn’t profitable.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google DeepMind unit, which famously developed a Go-playing algorithm that vanquished a champion human player in 2016, later launched several healthcare-related initiatives focused on chronic conditions. It also has lost money in recent years and run into privacy concerns over how health data was being collected.

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