Tag Archives: IBM Watson

Being smart about using artificial intelligence in the field of medicine

Since my August 20, 2018 post featured an opinion piece about the possibly imminent replacement of radiologists with artificial intelligence systems and the latest research about employing them for diagnosing eye diseases, it seems like a good time to examine some of the mythology embedded in the discussion about AI and medicine.

Imperfections in medical AI systems

An August 15, 2018 article for Slate.com by W. Nicholson Price II (who teaches at the University of Michigan School of Law; in addition to his law degree he has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Columbia University) begins with the peppy, optimistic view before veering into more critical territory (Note: Links have been removed),

For millions of people suffering from diabetes, new technology enabled by artificial intelligence promises to make management much easier. Medtronic’s Guardian Connect system promises to alert users 10 to 60 minutes before they hit high or low blood sugar level thresholds, thanks to IBM Watson, “the same supercomputer technology that can predict global weather patterns.” Startup Beta Bionics goes even further: In May, it received Food and Drug Administration approval to start clinical trials on what it calls a “bionic pancreas system” powered by artificial intelligence, capable of “automatically and autonomously managing blood sugar levels 24/7.”

An artificial pancreas powered by artificial intelligence represents a huge step forward for the treatment of diabetes—but getting it right will be hard. Artificial intelligence (also known in various iterations as deep learning and machine learning) promises to automatically learn from patterns in medical data to help us do everything from managing diabetes to finding tumors in an MRI to predicting how long patients will live. But the artificial intelligence techniques involved are typically opaque. We often don’t know how the algorithm makes the eventual decision. And they may change and learn from new data—indeed, that’s a big part of the promise. But when the technology is complicated, opaque, changing, and absolutely vital to the health of a patient, how do we make sure it works as promised?

Price describes how a ‘closed loop’ artificial pancreas with AI would automate insulin levels for diabetic patients, flaws in the automated system, and how companies like to maintain a competitive advantage (Note: Links have been removed),

[…] a “closed loop” artificial pancreas, where software handles the whole issue, receiving and interpreting signals from the monitor, deciding when and how much insulin is needed, and directing the insulin pump to provide the right amount. The first closed-loop system was approved in late 2016. The system should take as much of the issue off the mind of the patient as possible (though, of course, that has limits). Running a close-loop artificial pancreas is challenging. The way people respond to changing levels of carbohydrates is complicated, as is their response to insulin; it’s hard to model accurately. Making it even more complicated, each individual’s body reacts a little differently.

Here’s where artificial intelligence comes into play. Rather than trying explicitly to figure out the exact model for how bodies react to insulin and to carbohydrates, machine learning methods, given a lot of data, can find patterns and make predictions. And existing continuous glucose monitors (and insulin pumps) are excellent at generating a lot of data. The idea is to train artificial intelligence algorithms on vast amounts of data from diabetic patients, and to use the resulting trained algorithms to run a closed-loop artificial pancreas. Even more exciting, because the system will keep measuring blood glucose, it can learn from the new data and each patient’s artificial pancreas can customize itself over time as it acquires new data from that patient’s particular reactions.

Here’s the tough question: How will we know how well the system works? Diabetes software doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to accuracy. A 2015 study found that among smartphone apps for calculating insulin doses, two-thirds of the apps risked giving incorrect results, often substantially so. … And companies like to keep their algorithms proprietary for a competitive advantage, which makes it hard to know how they work and what flaws might have gone unnoticed in the development process.

There’s more,

These issues aren’t unique to diabetes care—other A.I. algorithms will also be complicated, opaque, and maybe kept secret by their developers. The potential for problems multiplies when an algorithm is learning from data from an entire hospital, or hospital system, or the collected data from an entire state or nation, not just a single patient. …

The [US Food and Drug Administraiont] FDA is working on this problem. The head of the agency has expressed his enthusiasm for bringing A.I. safely into medical practice, and the agency has a new Digital Health Innovation Action Plan to try to tackle some of these issues. But they’re not easy, and one thing making it harder is a general desire to keep the algorithmic sauce secret. The example of IBM Watson for Oncology has given the field a bit of a recent black eye—it turns out that the company knew the algorithm gave poor recommendations for cancer treatment but kept that secret for more than a year. …

While Price focuses on problems with algorithms and with developers and their business interests, he also hints at some of the body’s complexities.

Can AI systems be like people?

Susan Baxter, a medical writer with over 20 years experience, a PhD in health economics, and author of countless magazine articles and several books, offers a more person-centered approach to the discussion in her July 6, 2018 posting on susanbaxter.com,

The fascination with AI continues to irk, given that every second thing I read seems to be extolling the magic of AI and medicine and how It Will Change Everything. Which it will not, trust me. The essential issue of illness remains perennial and revolves around an individual for whom no amount of technology will solve anything without human contact. …

But in this world, or so we are told by AI proponents, radiologists will soon be obsolete. [my August 20, 2018 post] The adaptational learning capacities of AI mean that reading a scan or x-ray will soon be more ably done by machines than humans. The presupposition here is that we, the original programmers of this artificial intelligence, understand the vagaries of real life (and real disease) so wonderfully that we can deconstruct these much as we do the game of chess (where, let’s face it, Big Blue ate our lunch) and that analyzing a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional body, already problematic, can be reduced to a series of algorithms.

Attempting to extrapolate what some “shadow” on a scan might mean in a flesh and blood human isn’t really quite the same as bishop to knight seven. Never mind the false positive/negatives that are considered an acceptable risk or the very real human misery they create.

Moravec called it

It’s called Moravec’s paradox, the inability of humans to realize just how complex basic physical tasks are – and the corresponding inability of AI to mimic it. As you walk across the room, carrying a glass of water, talking to your spouse/friend/cat/child; place the glass on the counter and open the dishwasher door with your foot as you open a jar of pickles at the same time, take a moment to consider just how many concurrent tasks you are doing and just how enormous the computational power these ostensibly simple moves would require.

Researchers in Singapore taught industrial robots to assemble an Ikea chair. Essentially, screw in the legs. A person could probably do this in a minute. Maybe two. The preprogrammed robots took nearly half an hour. And I suspect programming those robots took considerably longer than that.

Ironically, even Elon Musk, who has had major production problems with the Tesla cars rolling out of his high tech factory, has conceded (in a tweet) that “Humans are underrated.”

I wouldn’t necessarily go that far given the political shenanigans of Trump & Co. but in the grand scheme of things I tend to agree. …

Is AI going the way of gene therapy?

Susan draws a parallel between the AI and medicine discussion with the discussion about genetics and medicine (Note: Links have been removed),

On a somewhat similar note – given the extent to which genetics discourse has that same linear, mechanistic  tone [as AI and medicine] – it turns out all this fine talk of using genetics to determine health risk and whatnot is based on nothing more than clever marketing, since a lot of companies are making a lot of money off our belief in DNA. Truth is half the time we don’t even know what a gene is never mind what it actually does;  geneticists still can’t agree on how many genes there are in a human genome, as this article in Nature points out.

Along the same lines, I was most amused to read about something called the Super Seniors Study, research following a group of individuals in their 80’s, 90’s and 100’s who seem to be doing really well. Launched in 2002 and headed by Angela Brooks Wilson, a geneticist at the BC [British Columbia] Cancer Agency and SFU [Simon Fraser University] Chair of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, this longitudinal work is examining possible factors involved in healthy ageing.

Turns out genes had nothing to do with it, the title of the Globe and Mail article notwithstanding. (“Could the DNA of these super seniors hold the secret to healthy aging?” The answer, a resounding “no”, well hidden at the very [end], the part most people wouldn’t even get to.) All of these individuals who were racing about exercising and working part time and living the kind of life that makes one tired just reading about it all had the same “multiple (genetic) factors linked to a high probability of disease”. You know, the gene markers they tell us are “linked” to cancer, heart disease, etc., etc. But these super seniors had all those markers but none of the diseases, demonstrating (pretty strongly) that the so-called genetic links to disease are a load of bunkum. Which (she said modestly) I have been saying for more years than I care to remember. You’re welcome.

The fundamental error in this type of linear thinking is in allowing our metaphors (genes are the “blueprint” of life) and propensity towards social ideas of determinism to overtake common sense. Biological and physiological systems are not static; they respond to and change to life in its entirety, whether it’s diet and nutrition to toxic or traumatic insults. Immunity alters, endocrinology changes, – even how we think and feel affects the efficiency and effectiveness of physiology. Which explains why as we age we become increasingly dissimilar.

If you have the time, I encourage to read Susan’s comments in their entirety.

Scientific certainties

Following on with genetics, gene therapy dreams, and the complexity of biology, the June 19, 2018 Nature article by Cassandra Willyard (mentioned in Susan’s posting) highlights an aspect of scientific research not often mentioned in public,

One of the earliest attempts to estimate the number of genes in the human genome involved tipsy geneticists, a bar in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and pure guesswork.

That was in 2000, when a draft human genome sequence was still in the works; geneticists were running a sweepstake on how many genes humans have, and wagers ranged from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Almost two decades later, scientists armed with real data still can’t agree on the number — a knowledge gap that they say hampers efforts to spot disease-related mutations.

In 2000, with the genomics community abuzz over the question of how many human genes would be found, Ewan Birney launched the GeneSweep contest. Birney, now co-director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, UK, took the first bets at a bar during an annual genetics meeting, and the contest eventually attracted more than 1,000 entries and a US$3,000 jackpot. Bets on the number of genes ranged from more than 312,000 to just under 26,000, with an average of around 40,000. These days, the span of estimates has shrunk — with most now between 19,000 and 22,000 — but there is still disagreement (See ‘Gene Tally’).

… the inconsistencies in the number of genes from database to database are problematic for researchers, Pruitt says. “People want one answer,” she [Kim Pruitt, a genome researcher at the US National Center for Biotechnology Information {NCB}] in Bethesda, Maryland] adds, “but biology is complex.”

I wanted to note that scientists do make guesses and not just with genetics. For example, Gina Mallet’s 2005 book ‘Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World’ recounts the story of how good and bad levels of cholesterol were established—the experts made some guesses based on their experience. That said, Willyard’s article details the continuing effort to nail down the number of genes almost 20 years after the human genome project was completed and delves into the problems the scientists have uncovered.

Final comments

In addition to opaque processes with developers/entrepreneurs wanting to maintain their secrets for competitive advantages and in addition to our own poor understanding of the human body (how many genes are there anyway?), there are same major gaps (reflected in AI) in our understanding of various diseases. Angela Lashbrook’s August 16, 2018 article for The Atlantic highlights some issues with skin cancer and shade of your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

… While fair-skinned people are at the highest risk for contracting skin cancer, the mortality rate for African Americans is considerably higher: Their five-year survival rate is 73 percent, compared with 90 percent for white Americans, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

As the rates of melanoma for all Americans continue a 30-year climb, dermatologists have begun exploring new technologies to try to reverse this deadly trend—including artificial intelligence. There’s been a growing hope in the field that using machine-learning algorithms to diagnose skin cancers and other skin issues could make for more efficient doctor visits and increased, reliable diagnoses. The earliest results are promising—but also potentially dangerous for darker-skinned patients.

… Avery Smith, … a software engineer in Baltimore, Maryland, co-authored a paper in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] Dermatology that warns of the potential racial disparities that could come from relying on machine learning for skin-cancer screenings. Smith’s co-author, Adewole Adamson of the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted multiple studies on demographic imbalances in dermatology. “African Americans have the highest mortality rate [for skin cancer], and doctors aren’t trained on that particular skin type,” Smith told me over the phone. “When I came across the machine-learning software, one of the first things I thought was how it will perform on black people.”

Recently, a study that tested machine-learning software in dermatology, conducted by a group of researchers primarily out of Germany, found that “deep-learning convolutional neural networks,” or CNN, detected potentially cancerous skin lesions better than the 58 dermatologists included in the study group. The data used for the study come from the International Skin Imaging Collaboration, or ISIC, an open-source repository of skin images to be used by machine-learning algorithms. Given the rise in melanoma cases in the United States, a machine-learning algorithm that assists dermatologists in diagnosing skin cancer earlier could conceivably save thousands of lives each year.

… Chief among the prohibitive issues, according to Smith and Adamson, is that the data the CNN relies on come from primarily fair-skinned populations in the United States, Australia, and Europe. If the algorithm is basing most of its knowledge on how skin lesions appear on fair skin, then theoretically, lesions on patients of color are less likely to be diagnosed. “If you don’t teach the algorithm with a diverse set of images, then that algorithm won’t work out in the public that is diverse,” says Adamson. “So there’s risk, then, for people with skin of color to fall through the cracks.”

As Adamson and Smith’s paper points out, racial disparities in artificial intelligence and machine learning are not a new issue. Algorithms have mistaken images of black people for gorillas, misunderstood Asians to be blinking when they weren’t, and “judged” only white people to be attractive. An even more dangerous issue, according to the paper, is that decades of clinical research have focused primarily on people with light skin, leaving out marginalized communities whose symptoms may present differently.

The reasons for this exclusion are complex. According to Andrew Alexis, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai, in New York City, and the director of the Skin of Color Center, compounding factors include a lack of medical professionals from marginalized communities, inadequate information about those communities, and socioeconomic barriers to participating in research. “In the absence of a diverse study population that reflects that of the U.S. population, potential safety or efficacy considerations could be missed,” he says.

Adamson agrees, elaborating that with inadequate data, machine learning could misdiagnose people of color with nonexistent skin cancers—or miss them entirely. But he understands why the field of dermatology would surge ahead without demographically complete data. “Part of the problem is that people are in such a rush. This happens with any new tech, whether it’s a new drug or test. Folks see how it can be useful and they go full steam ahead without thinking of potential clinical consequences. …

Improving machine-learning algorithms is far from the only method to ensure that people with darker skin tones are protected against the sun and receive diagnoses earlier, when many cancers are more survivable. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 63 percent of African Americans don’t wear sunscreen; both they and many dermatologists are more likely to delay diagnosis and treatment because of the belief that dark skin is adequate protection from the sun’s harmful rays. And due to racial disparities in access to health care in America, African Americans are less likely to get treatment in time.

Happy endings

I’ll add one thing to Price’s article, Susan’s posting, and Lashbrook’s article about the issues with AI , certainty, gene therapy, and medicine—the desire for a happy ending prefaced with an easy solution. If the easy solution isn’t possible accommodations will be made but that happy ending is a must. All disease will disappear and there will be peace on earth. (Nod to Susan Baxter and her many discussions with me about disease processes and happy endings.)

The solutions, for the most part, are seen as technological despite the mountain of evidence suggesting that technology reflects our own imperfect understanding of health and disease therefore providing what is at best an imperfect solution.

Also, we tend to underestimate just how complex humans are not only in terms of disease and health but also with regard to our skills, understanding, and, perhaps not often enough, our ability to respond appropriately in the moment.

There is much to celebrate in what has been accomplished: no more black death, no more smallpox, hip replacements, pacemakers, organ transplants, and much more. Yes, we should try to improve our medicine. But, maybe alongside the celebration we can welcome AI and other technologies with a lot less hype and a lot more skepticism.

AI (artificial intelligence) for Good Global Summit from May 15 – 17, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland: details and an interview with Frederic Werner

With all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI), a lot more attention seems to be paid to apocalyptic scenarios: loss of jobs, financial hardship, loss of personal agency and privacy, and more with all of these impacts being described as global. Still, there are some folks who are considering and working on ‘AI for good’.

If you’d asked me, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would not have been my first guess (my choice would have been United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]) as an agency likely to host the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit. But, it turns out the ITU is a UN (United Nations agency) and, according to its Wikipedia entry, it’s an intergovernmental public-private partnership, which may explain the nature of the participants in the upcoming summit.

The news

First, there’s a May 4, 2018 ITU media advisory (received via email or you can find the full media advisory here) about the upcoming summit,

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now widely identified as being able to address the greatest challenges facing humanity – supporting innovation in fields ranging from crisis management and healthcare to smart cities and communications networking.

The second annual ‘AI for Good Global Summit’ will take place 15-17 May [2018] in Geneva, and seeks to leverage AI to accelerate progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately benefit humanity.

WHAT: Global event to advance ‘AI for Good’ with the participation of internationally recognized AI experts. The programme will include interactive high-level panels, while ‘AI Breakthrough Teams’ will propose AI strategies able to create impact in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society – through interactive sessions. The summit will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

A special demo & exhibit track will feature innovative applications of AI designed to: protect women from sexual violence, avoid infant crib deaths, end child abuse, predict oral cancer, and improve mental health treatments for depression – as well as interactive robots including: Alice, a Dutch invention designed to support the aged; iCub, an open-source robot; and Sophia, the humanoid AI robot.

WHEN: 15-17 May 2018, beginning daily at 9 AM

WHERE: ITU Headquarters, 2 Rue de Varembé, Geneva, Switzerland (Please note: entrance to ITU is now limited for all visitors to the Montbrillant building entrance only on rue Varembé).

WHO: Confirmed participants to date include expert representatives from: Association for Computing Machinery, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Consumer Trade Association, Facebook, Fraunhofer, Google, Harvard University, IBM Watson, IEEE, Intellectual Ventures, ITU, Microsoft, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Partnership on AI, Planet Labs, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, University of California at Berkeley, University of Tokyo, XPRIZE Foundation, Yale University – and the participation of “Sophia” the humanoid robot and “iCub” the EU open source robotcub.

The interview

Frederic Werner, Senior Communications Officer at the International Telecommunication Union and** one of the organizers of the AI for Good Global Summit 2018 kindly took the time to speak to me and provide a few more details about the upcoming event.

Werner noted that the 2018 event grew out of a much smaller 2017 ‘workshop’ and first of its kind, about beneficial AI which this year has ballooned in size to 91 countries (about 15 participants are expected from Canada), 32 UN agencies, and substantive representation from the private sector. The 2017 event featured Dr. Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal  (Université de Montréal) was a featured speaker.

“This year, we’re focused on action-oriented projects that will help us reach our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We’re looking at near-term practical AI applications,” says Werner. “We’re matchmaking problem-owners and solution-owners.”

Academics, industry professionals, government officials, and representatives from UN agencies are gathering  to work on four tracks/themes:

In advance of this meeting, the group launched an AI repository (an action item from the 2017 meeting) on April 25, 2018 inviting people to list their AI projects (from the ITU’s April 25, 2018? AI repository news announcement),

ITU has just launched an AI Repository where anyone working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) can contribute key information about how to leverage AI to help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

This is the only global repository that identifies AI-related projects, research initiatives, think-tanks and organizations that aim to accelerate progress on the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To submit a project, just press ‘Submit’ on the AI Repository site and fill in the online questionnaire, providing all relevant details of your project. You will also be asked to map your project to the relevant World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) action lines and the SDGs. Approved projects will be officially registered in the repository database.

Benefits of participation on the AI Repository include:

WSIS Prizes recognize individuals, governments, civil society, local, regional and international agencies, research institutions and private-sector companies for outstanding success in implementing development oriented strategies that leverage the power of AI and ICTs.

Creating the AI Repository was one of the action items of last year’s AI for Good Global Summit.

We are looking forward to your submissions.

If you have any questions, please send an email to: ai@itu.int

“Your project won’t be visible immediately as we have to vet the submissions to weed out spam-type material and projects that are not in line with our goals,” says Werner. That said, there are already 29 projects in the repository. As you might expect, the UK, China, and US are in the repository but also represented are Egypt, Uganda, Belarus, Serbia, Peru, Italy, and other countries not commonly cited when discussing AI research.

Werner also pointed out in response to my surprise over the ITU’s role with regard to this AI initiative that the ITU is the only UN agency which has 192* member states (countries), 150 universities, and over 700 industry members as well as other member entities, which gives them tremendous breadth of reach. As well, the organization, founded originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Convention, has extensive experience with global standardization in the information technology and telecommunications industries. (See more in their Wikipedia entry.)


There is a bit more about the summit on the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage,

The 2nd edition of the AI for Good Global Summit will be organized by ITU in Geneva on 15-17 May 2018, in partnership with XPRIZE Foundation, the global leader in incentivized prize competitions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and sister United Nations agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNIDO, Global Pulse, UNICRI, UNODA, UNIDIR, UNODC, WFP, IFAD, UNAIDS, WIPO, ILO, UNITAR, UNOPS, OHCHR, UN UniversityWHO, UNEP, ICAO, UNDP, The World Bank, UN DESA, CTBTOUNISDRUNOG, UNOOSAUNFPAUNECE, UNDPA, and UNHCR.

The AI for Good series is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on AI. The action​​-oriented 2018 summit will identify practical applications of AI and supporting strategies to improve the quality and sustainability of life on our planet. The summit will continue to formulate strategies to ensure trusted, safe and inclusive development of AI technologies and equitable access to their benefits.

While the 2017 summit sparked the first ever inclusive global dialogue on beneficial AI, the action-oriented 2018 summit will focus on impactful AI solutions able to yield long-term benefits and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Breakthrough teams’ will demonstrate the potential of AI to map poverty and aid with natural disasters using satellite imagery, how AI could assist the delivery of citizen-centric services in smart cities, and new opportunities for AI to help achieve Universal Health Coverage, and finally to help achieve transparency and explainability in AI algorithms.

Teams will propose impactful AI strategies able to be enacted in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society. Strategies will be evaluated by the mentors according to their feasibility and scalability, potential to address truly global challenges, degree of supporting advocacy, and applicability to market failures beyond the scope of government and industry. The exercise will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

“As the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU is well placed to guide AI innovation towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development ​Goals. We are providing a neutral close quotation markplatform for international dialogue aimed at ​building a ​common understanding of the capabilities of emerging AI technologies.​​” Houlin Zhao, Secretary General ​of ITU​

Should you be close to Geneva, it seems that registration is still open. Just go to the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage, scroll the page down to ‘Documentation’ and you will find a link to the invitation and a link to online registration. Participation is free but I expect that you are responsible for your travel and accommodation costs.

For anyone unable to attend in person, the summit will be livestreamed (webcast in real time) and you can watch the sessions by following the link below,


For those of us on the West Coast of Canada and other parts distant to Geneva, you will want to take the nine hour difference between Geneva (Switzerland) and here into account when viewing the proceedings. If you can’t manage the time difference, the sessions are being recorded and will be posted at a later date.

*’132 member states’ corrected to ‘192 member states’ on May 11, 2018 at 1500 hours PDT.

*Redundant ‘and’ removed on July 19, 2018.

Artificial intelligence and industrial applications

This is take on artificial intelligence that I haven’t encountered before. Sean Captain’s Nov. 15, 2016 article for Fast Company profiles industry giant GE (General Electric) and its foray into that world (Note: Links have been removed),

When you hear the term “artificial intelligence,” you may think of tech giants Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, or Facebook. Industrial powerhouse General Electric is now aiming to be included on that short list. It may not have a chipper digital assistant like Cortana or Alexa. It won’t sort through selfies, but it will look through X-rays. It won’t recommend movies, but it will suggest how to care for a diesel locomotive. Today, GE announced a pair of acquisitions and new services that will bring machine learning AI to the kinds of products it’s known for, including planes, trains, X-ray machines, and power plants.

The effort started in 2015 when GE announced Predix Cloud—an online platform to network and collect data from sensors on industrial machinery such as gas turbines or windmills. At the time, GE touted the benefits of using machine learning to find patterns in sensor data that could lead to energy savings or preventative maintenance before a breakdown. Predix Cloud opened up to customers in February [2016?], but GE is still building up the AI capabilities to fulfill the promise. “We were using machine learning, but I would call it in a custom way,” says Bill Ruh, GE’s chief digital officer and CEO of its GE Digital business (GE calls its division heads CEOs). “And we hadn’t gotten to a general-purpose framework in machine learning.”

Today [Nov. 15, 2016] GE revealed the purchase of two AI companies that Ruh says will get them there. Bit Stew Systems, founded in 2005, was already doing much of what Predix Cloud promises—collecting and analyzing sensor data from power utilities, oil and gas companies, aviation, and factories. (GE Ventures has funded the company.) Customers include BC Hydro, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Scottish & Southern Energy.

The second purchase, Wise.io is a less obvious purchase. Founded by astrophysics and AI experts using machine learning to study the heavens, the company reapplied the tech to streamlining a company’s customer support systems, picking up clients like Pinterest, Twilio, and TaskRabbit. GE believes the technology will transfer yet again, to managing industrial machines. “I think by the middle of next year we will have a full machine learning stack,” says Ruh.

Though young, Predix is growing fast, with 270 partner companies using the platform, according to GE, which expects revenue on software and services to grow over 25% this year, to more than $7 billion. Ruh calls Predix a “significant part” of that extra money. And he’s ready to brag, taking a jab at IBM Watson for being a “general-purpose” machine-learning provider without the deep knowledge of the industries it serves. “We have domain algorithms, on machine learning, that’ll know what a power plant is and all the depth of that, that a general-purpose machine learning will never really understand,” he says.

One especially dull-sounding new Predix service—Predictive Corrosion Management—touches on a very hot political issue: giant oil and gas pipeline projects. Over 400 people have been arrested in months of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The issue is very complicated, but one concern of protestors is that a pipeline rupture would contaminate drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

“I think absolutely this is aimed at that problem. If you look at why pipelines spill, it’s corrosion,” says Ruh. “We believe that 10 years from now, we can detect a leak before it occurs and fix it before you see it happen.” Given how political battles over pipelines drag on, 10 years might not be so long to wait.

I recommend reading the article in its entirety if you have the time. And, for those of us in British Columbia, Canada, it was a surprise to see BC Hydro on the list of customers for one of GE’s new acquisitions. As well, that business about the pipelines hits home hard given the current debates (Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines) here. *ETA Dec. 27, 2016: This was originally edited just prior to publication to include information about the announcement by the Trudeau cabinet approving two pipelines for TransMountain  and Enbridge respectively while rejecting the Northern Gateway pipeline (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] online news Nov. 29, 2016).  I trust this second edit will stick.*

It seems GE is splashing out in a big way. There’s a second piece on Fast Company, a Nov. 16, 2016 article by Sean Captain (again) this time featuring a chat between an engineer and a robotic power plant,

We are entering the era of talking machines—and it’s about more than just asking Amazon’s Alexa to turn down the music. General Electric has built a digital assistant into its cloud service for managing power plants, jet engines, locomotives, and the other heavy equipment it builds. Over the internet, an engineer can ask a machine—even one hundreds of miles away—how it’s doing and what it needs. …

Voice controls are built on top of GE’s Digital Twin program, which uses sensor readings from machinery to create virtual models in cyberspace. “That model is constantly getting a stream of data, both operational and environmental,” says Colin Parris, VP at GE Software Research. “So it’s adapting itself to that type of data.” The machines live virtual lives online, allowing engineers to see how efficiently each is running and if they are wearing down.

GE partnered with Microsoft on the interface, using the Bing Speech API (the same tech powering the Cortana digital assistant), with special training on key terms like “rotor.” The twin had little trouble understanding the Mandarin Chinese accent of Bo Yu, one of the researchers who built the system; nor did it stumble on Parris’s Trinidad accent. Digital Twin will also work with Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality goggles, allowing someone to step into a 3D image of the equipment.

I can’t help wondering if there are some jobs that were eliminated with this technology.