UK arthritis resource charity taps IBM Watson to build virtual assistant

By Heather Mack

Millions of people around the world are living with arthritis. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control puts that figure at nearly 23 million, or one in every four adults. But as common as it is, arthritis is actually just one word used to describe the joint inflammation associated with over 200 musculoskeletal conditions that affect everyone differently. This means people who seek out information about their condition online are often met with a barrage of confusing literature or conflicting pieces of advice that don’t address their individual symptoms.

So British charity Arthritis Research UK and IBM Watson are trying to solve that problem with the introduction of a web and mobile-based virtual personal assistant for people in the UK, where about 10 million people are living with the condition. Created with the Watson Conversation API – which allows for quick, simple building of chatbots or virtual agents across mobile devices, messaging platforms or physical robots – the digital assistant draws information from the Arthritis Research UK library and specific input from the user to offer personalized, immediate advice on symptom management, treatment options and any other questions they may have.

“We know that there are millions of people in the UK living with arthritis whose lives are severely limited as they struggle with unanswered questions. We want to ensure that everyone has access to information and support, whenever and wherever they need it,” Arthritis Research UK’s CEO Liam O’Toole said in a statement. “We’re really excited to be working with IBM Watson on this innovative new service that will enable us to have conversations with anyone seeking help, that we simply wouldn’t be able to answer so quickly otherwise. We’re confident that this new virtual assistant will help more people push back the ways arthritis limits their lives.”

The tool is currently being tested by 300 people with arthritis in the UK, and it was developed over five months using Arthritis Research UK’s eight decades of research and expertise as well as advice from health care professionals and IBM Watson cognitive computing experts. Additionally, more than 350 people with arthritis helped to develop, test and improve the tool, which will learn over time to develop more personalized feedback to users.

The eventual goal -- that users will simply speak to an AI-powered chatbot about their specific condition and receive highly personalized advice in return -- won’t be available right away. The initial UK deployment will start out slowly, with users typing their inquiries into the site and the virtual assistant providing general information about arthritis and exercise that users can save online or print out. As use increases, the knowledge base will grow, enabling Arthritis Research UK to answer more questions such as those around diet and treatment options.

Considering the joint pain and limited dexterity in their hands many people with arthritis experience, it’s expected they will want an option that relieves them of the need to type. There is a plan for that. IBM Watson computing will learn from each interaction to refine the information retrieval tool for each user, and eventually, the tool will leverage the Watson cognitive voice input and output features (as well as location services) to understand questions spoken to the virtual assistant.

“Arthritis Research UK developed the Watson-powered digital personal assistant themselves, providing a terrific example of how IBM's open, cloud-based Watson development platform is making cognitive computing broadly accessible to organizations and individuals worldwide,” Cameron Brooks, IBM European Director for Watson in the Public Sector, said in a statement.  “Further, Arthritis Research UK’s use of Watson APIs is a model for organizations thinking about how they might integrate cognitive computing into their services in order to positively impact the lives of people living with a serious health condition.”