Creating Art with Watson, and Better Health?

By Bernie Zipprich

Some weeks ago, I visited IBM's "Art with Watson" exhibition at Cadillac House in New York City, which underscored the fascinating possibilities that are fast-becoming reality as cognitive computing and artificial intelligence progress.

Although it focused on the arts, by showcasing how AI can augment human creativity, it foreshadowed the promise that AI holds for a wide range of service intensive fields – including healthcare.

For the exhibition, IBM selected eight historical figures from science, engineering, politics and the arts, then fed public and private writings from these individuals into Watson to see what patterns might be revealed …. That’s one of the many exciting promises of these technologies. Where older language processing approaches might look at the frequency of words to draw deductions about meaning, Watson and other artificially intelligent systems can understand words’ meaning based on their context by pattern matching (“learning”) against millions of examples.

The net result is a surprisingly sophisticated and accurate deduction of what a text means. Watson was able to demonstrate, for example, that where public writings about Marie Curie during her lifetime described her as detached and removed from her children, her personal writings were characterized by deep affection for her supposedly neglected kids. Artist Sean Freeman seized upon this contrast – identified by the computer – to create a fluorescent pop art portrait feature featuring Curie at the center, cold adjectives from the public portrayals in block text blue, and warm adjectives from her diaries in a fluorescent cursive pink.

In another example, after analyzing Eleanor Roosevelt’s public writings and speeches, Watson found strong thematic parallels between Roosevelt’s work and late 2000s American pop music (think Single Ladies by Beyonce). This insight led a trio of artists to create a music video featuring Roosevelt’s likeness, words and 2000s-esque pop acoustics.

What does any of this have to do with healthcare?

A few years ago, I had the fortune to meet the head of the nurse call line division for a major health plan. He had recently joined the organization from USAA – a financial services firm focused on veterans’ families renowned for its high quality customer service. We were discussing consumer experience in healthcare and he talked about a time he sat next to a nurse who was assisting a caller on the nurseline. The caller revealed that her husband recently died. Without thinking, the nurse paused, closed her eyes, turned around in her chair, let out a sigh, then said with genuine grief, “I’m so sorry to hear that; I lost my husband a few years ago, and I know how tough it is.” A moment later they returned to the business of the call. It was the tiniest thing, but to him it spoke volumes. It was a moment of genuine empathy and connection within the often-impersonal labyrinth of American healthcare. His question was, how can we create more moments of genuine connection?

That’s what was so exciting about about Art with Watson. While the exhibition was showcasing ways that human ingenuity can augment human creativity, it arguably also implied how such technologies will be able to augment other unique human abilities like social connection and empathy in domains beyond art as well. Welltok is taking early steps in this direction by training Watson not just to help consumers use their benefits and access care, but also to understand the context, intent and emotional content of consumers’ queries as well. Beyond providing information on “how much will my screening cost”, it is in-tune with whether a consumer is frustrated, confused or understands the subtext of a query. In addition to providing a more empathetic, convenient experience for consumers, this will free up call center reps and HR managers to focus on the moments that really matter.

Creating a healthcare system that works better for the people it serves won’t happen overnight, and it can’t happen with technology alone. But when cognitive technologies can be used to complement uniquely human skills, it suggests that not only can we achieve a more affordable, convenient system, we can achieve a more human-centered one as well.

Learn more about Welltok’s work with IBM Watson here or request a demo.