• Watson will mine … blogs?!?!

    No doubt computers can help in the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions. You remember Watson, the imperfect  yet Jeopardy-dominating computer, right? Well, it is being retooled for a job in health care. In an interview about just that, Dr. Herbert Chase, a consultant to the Watson project, had this to say:

    Patients have an incredible amount of experience with treatments and feedback on their usefulness and side effects, and they share these with each other on blogs. Watson will be able to cull that in the future. The web is filled with data from all these “informal experiments” that will never be the subject for randomized controlled trials, but are useful data nonetheless.

    Blogs?!?!? Actually, it’s not that crazy. And I do think employing Watson in health care is smart and important. But there is a problem, which I will get to. Dr. Chase continued,

    As an example, I took Lipitor and developed insomnia, which I never had before. It took me a few days to figure out what was causing it, but when I did I went to the medical text books, and there was nothing there on insomnia as a side effect. I went to PubMed, and I’m a pretty good searcher, and there was nothing there. When I went to the blogs, though, it was full of people saying, “Don’t take Lipitor, it will keep you up at night.” What’s interesting about Watson is that it can understand natural language, so it will know that “can’t go to sleep” is the same as “insomnia.” […]

    I have no doubt that not only blogs, but all manner of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, the TIE comments) are chock full of people griping about side effects and positive effects of drugs and other medical interventions, not to mention experiences at hospitals and with physicians. Watson and other bots could, no doubt, mine those sources for information not available any other way.

    But, how do we know that information is any good? Back to Dr. Chase:

    There’s a concept that’s very profound for the medical profession called the evidence pyramid. At very top, with the smallest volume, is the very best evidence, which generally can be found in text books. It’s been highly vetted. Most of the time when someone has a medical question, it’s answerable in the textbooks. It’s so hard to search the textbooks alone, that you need a Watson-like 2 million pages/second machine. The worst evidence, which seems paradoxical, is in PubMed. This will include articles the drug companies wrote, articles that got nixed once they were repeated, etc. But [this category of evidence] is vast.

    Yes, drug companies sponsor articles that, according to Dr. Chase, turn PubMed into the worst source of evidence. Drug companies do this, presumably, because they have the means and motivation. It’s good for business to hype your wares and trash your competition’s. Influencing what people think of products and their creators is what marketing is all about.

    But now, Watson is going to get around all that by mining social media, among other things. You know what that means, right? Drug companies will soon be paying for people (or computers) to pump fake claims about drugs onto Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and the like. Maybe Watson will be smart enough not to be confused by all that, though the rest of us will have to deal with it.

    On the other hand, what’s to stop a drug company from building a Watson-like computer that can outsmart Watson in the blogosphere? Maybe they already built one. Maybe I’m such a computer. Hello Watson, can you hear me?

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    • I have so much hope for Watson, but god help us all when our diagnostic aids take the number of times a statement has been repeated on the internet to be any measure of its truth.

    • My hat’s off to your paranoia; and I think that you are quite right. Good call! The problem I’d be worried about, though, is that there’s an awful lot of really silly stuff out there, and the reason it’s not in the peer-reviewed literature is that it really is silly. Also, it’s important to remember that Watson, even more than Deep Blue, is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick: it doesn’t make any attempt to “understand” what it paws through. So anything it flags needs to be reviewed by someone who does understand. It doesn’t understand that Toronto isn’t an American city; it was perfectly happy that it was the closest match to all the other keywords.