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IBM champions cloud, big data, open source to transform healthcare at TED summit

IBM suggests how eliminating noise in the patient ward -- while slightly eerie and unnerving -- could actually improve healthcare. But it can't be done without big data and the cloud.

SAN FRANCISCO---TED talks are known for thinking big and outside of the box, but IBM fine-tuned its approach with a roadmap for the future of healthcare, work, and personal lives in the next 10, 15, and even 50 years.

Held at the luminous new SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco on Tuesday morning, TED organizers admitted sometimes social-minded projects and ideas often come out like marketing gab from corporations. Thus, they insisted Tuesday's IBM-themed series of TED talks derives from initiatives from both IBM as well as "industry partners."

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Jon Iwata, chief of IBM's marketing and citizenship unit, commenced by stressing the "power of observation," which he theorized is one of the most "undervalued leadership skills."

"The application of science, technology and reason can solve problems in society and improve the human condition," Iwata argued. "Today, we have never believed this more strongly or fervently."

For IBM, Iwata noted, this comes down to the power of big data and the cloud.

Monika Blaumueller, a healthcare solutions delivery consultant at IBM, acknowledged many of the obvious financial and geographic limits to bringing many of healthcare innovations routinely discussed at TED talks to remote areas.

But, she argued, we do have one abundant renewable resource that can make aid efforts radically more effective: "A flood of big data and our capability to make sense of it like never before."

For example, Blaumueller noted that an algorithm spotted the recent onslaught of the Ebola virus nine days before the World Health Organization.

Inhi Cho Suh, Vice President of integration and governance for IBM's software group, discussed how those two lines of technology intersect for healthcare.

Suh reflected on why we are "bound to noise," explaining how doctors and nurses have utilized sound for decades, from alerting how the patient is doing to alerting where care givers should concentrate.

She suggested we imagine a different future: a patient resting quietly. 

"Machines don't replace humans. They empower them," Suh reminded.

Admitting how that scenario might actually seem unnerving — or even frightening — Suh insisted it would also be more relaxing for the patient — and this would be made possible via big data.

More than 200 time-sensitive variables can affect a diagnosis, Suh cited. Instead of wasting minutes, she continued, a doctor can share information through the cloud worldwide in real-time for collective insights.

"Machines don't replace humans. They empower them," Suh reminded, positing that big data and the cloud can enable healthcare providers to reprioritze human attention and interactions.

This highly-complex capability requires tremendous partnerships with thought leaders in the medical community. Much like Apple, Samsung, and Google, among other tech giants diving deeper into data-driven healthcare, IBM has been making these partnerships a priority.

But in this case, observation might not be the right approach. Suh argued that this emerging era of social sharing in healthcare can transform patients from "passive observers to active contributors."

Another development IBM is developing and now employing in healthcare is cognitive computing, a platform that not only retains and transmits information but actually learns on its own, being that it is inspired by the human brain.

"The speed of invention in the future will be as fast as we can drum up ideas," DeLuca predicted.

Cognitive computing marks "a big bet on transformation" for healthcare in developing regions especially, as demonstrated during a micro-documentary about Project Lucy for driving innovation in Africa. One overarching goal for cognitive computing is to enable and produce better trained and skilled doctors, scientists and even entrepreneurs.

IBM mobile software engineer Lisa Seacat DeLuca admitted even as an inventor with more than 370 patent applications to her name, she is still using older technologies to get new projects done.

The Internet of Everything is a common dream (and revenue strategy) among many big players in big tech, and IBM is no exception. DeLuca spoke to IBM's interest and commitment to delivering mobile and cloud technologies founded in open source.

The integration of connected devices with open source software could fuel healthcare features as simple and cheap as pushing a public (and potentially embarrassing) status message to Facebook when someone doesn't make a daily FitBit goal, DeLuca quipped to raucous laughter from the TED audience.

"The speed of invention in the future will be as fast as we can drum up ideas," DeLuca predicted.

Blaumueller concluded her session by asking the audience, "Let's imagine a future where analytics is an integral part of our healthcare."