We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Operations, Machine Learning, and Premature Babies

9th April 2012

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In any neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), every baby is connected to dozens of monitors. And each monitor is streaming hundreds of readings per second into various data systems. They can generate alerts if anything goes severely out of spec, but in normal operation, they just generate a summary report for the doctor every half hour or so.

IBM discovered that by applying machine learning to the full data stream, they were able to diagnose some dangerous infections a full day before any symptoms were noticeable to a human. That’s amazing in itself, but what’s more important is what they were looking for. I expected them to be looking for telltale spikes or irregularities in the readings: perhaps not serious enough to generate an alarm on their own, but still, the sort of things you’d intuitively expect of a person about to become ill. But according to Anjul Bhambhri, IBM’s Vice President of Big Data, the telltale signal wasn’t spikes or irregularities, but the opposite. There’s a certain normal variation in heart rate, etc., throughout the day, and babies who were about to become sick didn’t exhibit the variation. Their heart rate was too normal; it didn’t change throughout the day as much as it should.

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