IBM Watson serving up Covid info

Published on the 06/04/2020 | Written by Heather Wright


Dr Watson_ IBM Covid assistant

Dr Watson on call to take strain off overloaded help lines…

As health lines around the globe continued to be slammed by a deluge of calls from people wanting Covid information, IBM is hoping its latest – free (for now at least) – offering will see governments and health organisations tapping AI rather than overstretched human responders.

The company has trained its Watson AI to answer Covid-19 questions in an effort to cut long wait times on information lines around the world.

The Watson Assistant for Citizens virtual agent brings together Big Blue’s Watson Assistant and Watson Discovery services, along with AI and natural language capabilities from IBM. It leverages data from external resources, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local sources such as links to school closings, news and documents on a state website.

It provides an AI-powered virtual agent to help deliver information while alleviating the pressure on contact centres.

It’s designed to provide an AI-powered virtual agent to help deliver information while alleviating the pressure on contact centres, freeing up human agents to help those with more complex questions.

The Watson Assistant for Citizens virtual agent can answer basic questions, such as ‘What are the symptoms?’, ‘How do I protect myself?’ and ‘How do I clean my home properly?’ – via phone or text. They may be basic questions, but they’re questions IBM says are ‘common’ – and are likely to make up a high percentage of calls.  As such, IBM believes it will reduce wait times for calls to government agencies, healthcare organisations and academic institutions.

The company says the offering – which is already in use in parts of the US, and countries including the UK, Spain, the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland – can also be customised to address questions specific to an area or region, such as ‘Where can I get tested?’ and ‘What are cases in my neighbourhood?’.

In New Zealand, people calling Healthline have been facing long hold times. In late March, those wait times reached three hours, with some callers also reporting they were then cut off.

It’s a similar story around the world, with IBM saying wait times for Covid related queries are often exceeding two hours.

Examples of the uses of Watson Assistant for Citizens, cited by IBM, include the Czech Ministry of Health’s Anežka virtual agent, which advises citizens about prevention, treatment and other related topics, a Paediatric assessment tool in use in Georgia which walks parents through a series of questions and provides advice on the next steps to take, and a Welsh and English speaking assistant supporting healthcare workers and the general public in the Wales.

In New York, the County of Otsego is using the virtual agent to answer questions including ‘How do I apply for unemployment?’.

IBM says it is offering Watson Assistant for Citizens for no charge for ‘at least’ 90 days and will assist with initial set up, which can typically be done in a few days. The initial solution is available in English and Spanish and can be tailored to 13 languages.

It comes with 15 pre-trained Covid queries and can be customised with further queries – or in IBM parlance ‘intents’ related specifically to the region – and to integrate with back-end ERP systems.

“While helping government agencies and healthcare institutions use AI to get critical information out to their citizens remains a high priority right now, the current environment has made it clear that every business in every industry should find ways to digitally engage with their clients and employees,” says Rob Thomas, general manager, IBM Data & AI.

“With today’s news, IBM is taking years of experience in helping thousands of global businesses and institutions use Natural Language Processing and other advanced AI technologies to better meet the demands of their constituents, and now applying it to the COVID-19 crisis.”

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