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IBM Watson: Artificial Intelligence Serving Emergency Services

Author: Marc Valls Estefanell

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-06-27
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IBM has been developing an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program for years. Its name is Watson and, specifically, is a cognitive system that helps humans taking decisions. But is this technology able to support Incident Commanders on the field? 

First of all, and before answering this question, is fundamental to know a little bit more about Watson. “Nowadays, there are a lot of companies working on AI, but there’s no company doing a cognitive system like Watson,” said Juan Andrés Avilés, Industry Architects Manager at IBM. “This program is a set of capabilities that are in IBM’s cloud, Bluemix, where everybody has access to it. People can use and integrate the different capabilities in their own applications. Daily, we have new capabilities, new algorithms… So, Watson is something alive, its development is never-ending.”

Watson is something alive, its development is never-ending

For instance, imagine a forest fire where firefighters are using devices, such as drones, body cams, and thermal cams, in order to have an idea of what is happening on the field. Is Watson able to understand all this video content in real time and, instantly, propose a solution? 

Avilés argued: “Yes, it can. This technology understands unstructured content: audio, image, and text; but with a prior training. This coaching requires weeks or months depending on the complexity. It consists of teaching Watson which items (fire, focus of heat, crowds of people…) must detect and identify to support Incident Commanders on the field when they have to take decisions. At the end, the more you train Watson, the more probabilities it has to give you the right decision.” 

This technology understands unstructured content: audio, image and text; but with a prior training

Marc Castellnou, Wildfire Analyst and Inspector at Bombers de la Generalitat (Catalonia Fire Services) was asked about Watson and its potential use by Incident Commanders on the field. He pointed out that they have never used Watson, but they stand for gathering together all the expertise from their technicians by AI algorithms. Unlike Watson, which suggests its own solution, their system proposes a solution according to the algorithms that think like Castellnou or his colleagues in a 93% of reliability. It is not a system that intends to substitute the human decision-making, but a system which solves the doubt of a decision humanly taken. Each person has a different way to react to a problem. So, the idea is that every technician, throughout his entire professional career, has his own algorithm. And when the technician retires, this algorithm is kept in order to be activated in case it is needed.

Their system solves the doubt of a decision humanly taken

Regarding this AI system, Castellnou insisted that they want to train their own AI algorithms. However, they have two problems: First one, loss of expertise. Firefighters who began working in the ‘80s are now reaching retirement. These technicians lived huge exceptional moments in the ‘90s and at the beginning of 2000. Therefore, the real challenge lies in finding the way of avoiding this loss of expertise. The second one is a long-term training. Technicians only occasionally aggregate expertise. In other words, daily normal services are well-resolved and, for instance, once every ten years, there is an exceptional service.

According to Castellnou, most programs like Watson solve issues that are already solved. Furthermore, he said that they are intended for people who don’t know which decision to take; hence, these kinds of programs provide data, not solutions.

Two problems: loss of expertise and a long-term training

In operation, Watson can support Incident Commanders (police and fire services) in the field because Watson is able to understand, in real time, content from devices, such as drones, body cams, and thermal cams, and instantly propose a solution. The best of all is that it can handle lots of data without being tired or stressed.

The problem is that few emergency agencies know about the potential use of Watson in their interventions. It just may be an Incident Commanders’ best friend as a virtual assistant. In fact, Watson is not here to substitute human decision-making, but to assist it, so this technology is fully compatible, for example, with the Catalonia Fire Service’s aforementioned strategy.

For more information on IBM Watson, see www.ibm.com/watson

Marc Valls Estefanell is the Director of Education & Public Policy at Unblur
This article was originally posted at linked-in.com and is used by arrangement with the author.

Photo by Randall D. Larson: San Jose (CA) Fire incident command and support staff on scene of 3-alarm fire, March 2007.

- Product Profiles/9-1-1magazine.com (via Unblur, 6/22/17)

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