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How IBM Watson Overpromised and Underdelivered on AI Health Care

After its triumph on Jeopardy!, IBM’s AI seemed poised to revolutionize medicine. Doctors are still waiting

16 min read
Conceptual photo-illustration imagining IBM’s AI Watson as a concerned doctor, with the Watson logo standing in for the doctor’s face.
Illustration: Eddie Guy

In 2014, IBM opened swanky new headquarters for its artificial intelligence division, known as IBM Watson. Inside the glassy tower in lower Manhattan, IBMers can bring prospective clients and visiting journalists into the “immersion room," which resembles a miniature planetarium. There, in the darkened space, visitors sit on swiveling stools while fancy graphics flash around the curved screens covering the walls. It's the closest you can get, IBMers sometimes say, to being inside Watson's electronic brain.

One dazzling 2014 demonstration of Watson's brainpower showed off its potential to transform medicine using AI—a goal that IBM CEO Virginia Rometty often calls the company's moon shot. In the demo, Watson took a bizarre collection of patient symptoms and came up with a list of possible diagnoses, each annotated with Watson's confidence level and links to supporting medical literature.

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John Bardeen’s Terrific Transistorized Music Box

This simple gadget showed off the magic of the first transistor

5 min read
 A small electronic gadget encased in clear plastic has a speaker and some buttons.

This music box demonstrated the portability and responsiveness of the point-contact transistor.

The Spurlock Museum/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

On 16 December 1947, after months of work and refinement, the Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain completed their critical experiment proving the effectiveness of the point-contact transistor. Six months later, Bell Labs gave a demonstration to officials from the U.S. military, who chose not to classify the technology because of its potentially broad applications. The following week, news of the transistor was released to the press. The New York Herald Tribune predicted that it would cause a revolution in the electronics industry. It did.

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Liquid Metal Stretchy Circuits, Built With Sound

Encase metallic droplets in plastic for elastic electronics

2 min read
Dark photograph of gloved hands holding an item that has the letters DMDL, with glowing yellow rectangles in an assortment of spots on the letters.

Liquid metal particles sheathed in polymers connect microLEDs to make an ultra-stretchable display.

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

A team in Korea has used sound waves to connect tiny droplets of liquid metals inside a polymer casing. The novel technique is a way to make tough, highly conductive circuits that can be flexed and stretched to five times their original size.

Making stretchable electronics for skin-based sensors and implantable medical devices requires materials that can conduct electricity like metals but deform like rubber. Conventional metals don’t cut it for this use. To make elastic conductors, researchers have looked at conductive polymers and composites of metals and polymers. But these materials lose their conductivity after being stretched and released a few times.

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NYU Biomedical Engineering Speeds Research from Lab Bench to Bedside

Intensive clinical collaboration is fueling growth of NYU Tandon’s biomedical engineering program

5 min read

This optical tomography device that can be used to recognize and track breast cancer, without the negative effects of previous imaging technology. It uses near-infrared light to shine into breast tissue and measure light attenuation that is caused by the propagation through the affected tissue.

A.H. Hielscher, Clinical Biophotonics Laboratory

This is a sponsored article brought to you by NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.

When Andreas H. Hielscher, the chair of the biomedical engineering (BME) department at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, arrived at his new position, he saw raw potential. NYU Tandon had undergone a meteoric rise in its U.S. News & World Report graduate ranking in recent years, skyrocketing 47 spots since 2009. At the same time, the NYU Grossman School of Medicine had shot from the thirties to the #2 spot in the country for research. The two scientific powerhouses, sitting on opposite banks of the East River, offered Hielscher a unique opportunity: to work at the intersection of engineering and healthcare research, with the unmet clinical needs and clinician feedback from NYU’s world-renowned medical program directly informing new areas of development, exploration, and testing.

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