IBM turned its Jeopardy-winning A.I. into the world’s smartest COVID-19 chatbot

Luke Dormehl

IBM’s question-answering Watson A.I. is most famous for whooping the butt of human champions on quiz show Jeopardy. Now, IBM has repurposed its famous creation to help government agencies, health care organizations, and academic institutions around the world cope with the massive overload of questions that citizens have about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first time that Watson has been used to help in a pandemic scenario.

A coronavirus-focused version of the Watson A.I. has been called into service as a virtual agent in places including Arkansas, California, Georgia, New York, and Texas in the United States, as well as the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Spain and U.K. It is capable of answering locally relevant questions, ranging from those about coronavirus symptoms and testing specifics to queries on things like social distancing. These consistent and accurate responses can be provided to citizens via voice calls or text chat.

“In this difficult situation, people are mostly asking about symptoms, testing, prevention, government regulations about social distancing, schools, exams, [and the like],” Dr. Roy Vergis, consultant at IBM Watson Health and an expert on digital health for the World Health Organization, told Digital Trends. “Our team is currently adding responses to psychological questions, by which a virtual nurse can help people to deal with their fears and emotional problems and provide comfort to them in these times.”

Watson Assistant for Citizens pulls data from a range of external sources — local, national, and international. For instance, it can draw on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while also pulling information from state websites to find news about school closings and the like. As another example of local information, in New York’s Otsego County, the COVID-19 virtual agent is able to answer citizen’s questions such as, “How do I apply for unemployment?”

The technology itself is impressive. But just as impressive is the speed at which IBM was able to pull it together. The first COVID-19 Watson Assistant was developed by IBM’s Watson labs in Prague in the Czech Republic. After being raised as a possibility during a meeting with health ministers, a working version of the chatbot was launched less than a week later. In its first week, the Anezka chatbot assisted more than 50,000 citizens and became the most widely used chatbot in the Czech Republic.

Now custom versions of the same tool are being rolled out around the world.