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Not the Advice You Wanted

IBM's Watson supercomputer sometimes gives inappropriate cancer treatment advice, Stat News reports. It reviewed a series of internal IBM documents.

After Watson's winning turn on the game show Jeopardy! in 2011, IBM announced that it would be feeding the supercomputer scientific research articles and other data for it to analyze to help doctors treat cancer patients. While Watson for Oncology has been taken up by some centers, Stat News reported last year that it has been underwhelming.

As Stat News now reports, the system's recommendations can be inaccurate. According to Gizmodo, the program recommended that a patient with lung cancer and severe bleeding be treated with chemotherapy and bevacizumab, even though bevacizumab can lead to severe hemorrhaging. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center notes that it believes this case was part of system testing and the recommendation was not given to a patient, it adds.

The documents appear to blame the training Watson received from IBM engineers and MSKCC physicians on hypothetical cases for the incorrect recommendations, Stat News says. Gizmodo adds that that training may have led Watson to incorporate those doctors' treatment preferences rather than rely solely on the data.

An IBM spokesperson tells Gizmodo that Watson for Oncology is being used by 230 hospitals and that it has "improved Watson Health based on continuous feedback from clients, new scientific evidence, and new cancers and treatment alternatives."