Moon Shots Cost More Than You Think

Roger Peng

In a deeply reported article, Casey Ross and Ike Swetlitz report that IBM’s Watson isn’t living up to its hype when it comes to cancer care:

The interviews suggest that IBM, in its rush to bolster flagging revenue, unleashed a product without fully assessing the challenges of deploying it in hospitals globally. While it has emphatically marketed Watson for cancer care, IBM hasn’t published any scientific papers demonstrating how the technology affects physicians and patients. As a result, its flaws are getting exposed on the front lines of care by doctors and researchers who say that the system, while promising in some respects, remains undeveloped.

I thought the article was very well-written, covering many angles and getting into the details. I would encourage reading the entire thing.

While many issues are covered, I bumped on this one quote about the amount of investment (or lack thereof) that IBM is putting into Watson.

[Peter] Greulich said IBM needs to invest more money in Watson and hire more people to make it successful. In the 1960s, he said, IBM spent about 11.5 times its annual earnings to develop its mainframe computer, a line of business that still accounts for much of its profitability today. If it were to make an equivalent investment in Watson, it would need to spend $137 billion. “The only thing it’s spent that much money on is stock buybacks,” Greulich said.

That Watson hasn’t cured cancer overnight—or lived up to its own marketing material—should come as no surprise. But I wonder if people are nevertheless up to investing in what it would take to find a cure.

I’ve often heard of curing cancer as a “moon shot”, in reference to the Apollo program to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. But that project cost a lot of money, about $112 billion in today’s dollars, or about $11 billion per year over the roughly 10 year span of the project. The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is about $5 billion—so, it’s less. Also, I would argue we know substantially less about human cancer now than we did about physics and space in 1959 (although there was plenty to learn back then too). How much additional money would we need to make up for that lack of base knowledge?