IBM’s Watson makes its health care debut on the Apple Watch

Apple Watch fitness milanese loop band
The Apple Watch.
Courtesy: Apple

Imagine: You’ve been trying to keep your cholesterol low, but constant business travel means too many fast food meals and not enough exercise. What if you received recommendations on healthier restaurants nearby—from your watch? And, what if that watch also encouraged you to take a 20-minute walk? Or what if it realized that you actually hate walks and would rather take a yoga class around the block that starts at 7 p.m.?

This may be the future of better health, at least if IBM’s Watson has its way. The cognitive computing wunderkind, known for its winning turn on Jeopardy!, is pairing its artificial intelligence with the mobile sensing power of Apple’s smartwatch (AAPL) to create a health platform that can interact and adapt to each individual user. It’s the first time Watson’s super computing power will be used with the Apple Watch to transform how people manage their wellbeing. It all happens within an app called CaféWell Concierge, Powered by Watson.

The app, developed by Welltok of Denver, takes advantage of Watson’s natural language capabilities to allow CaféWell Concierge to become more personalized over time as the cognitive computer reasons and learns. Users can talk directly to the app to ask questions about health, nutrition, exercise or even IBM’s health benefit details and get quick answers.

Meanwhile, a “Dialog” feature allows the app to engage a user even when he or she isn’t directly asking it a question. It can start a conversation or prompt users for information. Pair the user input with the sensors within an Apple Watch, and you essentially have a high-powered. uber-intelligent wearable—like a Fitbit (FIT) on steroids.

“Much of the data off of wearables doesn’t go anywhere. No one knows exactly what to do with it,” said Cynthia Burghard, a research director at IDC Health Insights. “Watson with its cognitive capabilities can do something with all that data and can even pull in its other sources to create a useful service.”

The mission behind the app is to create sustainable behavioral change for a user, especially those who are managing a chronic condition. A smart app on a smart watch on one’s wrist may be better at prompting important behaviors that could, ultimately, keep someone healthy and out of the doctor’s office or hospital. It could be as simple and benign as reminding someone to get a flu shot while walking by a retail pharmacy to something as serious as remembering to take a vital medication at a certain time.

“It’s about empowering patients,” said Kyu Rhee, chief health officer at IBM. “Doctors only have a few hours with patients in any given year. But, by empowering people with information outside the doctor’s office, we can nudge them—right on their wrists—towards better behaviors.”

Watson still has plenty of learning to do. The CaféWell Concierge app isn’t yet commercially available on the Apple Watch, though it is available on the mobile web. Welltok is first launching the app internally at IBM (IBM) so that employees can help feed Watson more information and help it learn how to better care for a user’s health. IBM will offer employees a reduced cost Apple Watch, depending on their health plan; meanwhile Welltok plans to launch a commercial version of the app next year.

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