IBM’s Watson – a guide dog’s best friend

IBM employee Lorraine Trapani with Labrador puppy T.J., whom she is raising for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Ridgefield, Conn. Photographs courtesy Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Puppy love has gone high tech.

Yorktown Heights-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind — which breeds, raises, trains and places guide dogs with people who are blind or visually impaired — is using Watson on IBM Cloud to select those pups best suited for the job.

The statistics are sobering: Someone in the U.S. goes blind every seven minutes — a fact compounded by the baby boomer Computer’s best friendgeneration facing age-related vision loss. It costs Guiding Eyes about $50,000 to train a dog over two years at its Yorktown Heights and Patterson facilities.

But only half the dogs raised and trained — Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds mainly — graduate as guide dogs or become elite breeders. (Among the puppies bred at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, 37 percent eventually become guide dogs or breeders and another 13 percent are provided to other organizations for less demanding service dog work.)

That’s where Watson comes in. He, it, is part of a new breed of cognitive computers, processing information the way we do, through learning, interactions, the senses and experience. Using Watson Natural Language Classifier, Personality Insights and other services, Guiding Eyes analyzed data on the cloud regarding genetic, health and behavior information on 1,200 dogs, from birth through training. Watson was 100 percent accurate in determining which dogs would succeed, based not only on the pooch but on socialization and the skills of the puppy raiser. Watson is also something of a matchmaker.

“Since Guiding Eyes was founded in 1954, we’ve graduated over 7,000 guide dog teams,” CEO Thomas Panek says in a statement. “By partnering with IBM and applying Watson’s analysis to our process of breeding and training dogs, we can be even more successful in matching guide dogs with people who have vision loss. This means more individuals can achieve greater independence by being paired with an exceptional dog… core to our mission at Guiding Eyes.”

“This opens countless opportunities for Guiding Eyes, aided by Watson, to unravel the complexities of nature versus nurture,” adds Jane Russenberger, director of Genetics and Breeding at Guiding Eyes. “We are now planning an in-depth project to understand which environmental factors have the most influence in helping pups develop to their fullest potential. Embracing this innovation, we plan to apply Watson insights to improve the breeding, raising and training of dogs.”

Guiding Eyes and IBM are working with researchers at North Carolina State University to tackle the challenge of dog stress, one of the most difficult traits to measure and among the biggest predictors of a dog’s ability to graduate from the Guiding Eyes program. Researchers are developing wearable devices equipped with sensors to measure the behaviors and heart rates of puppies, creating a Watson “Internet of Things for Puppies” that can enable more effective breeding, raising and training.

Says Don Boulia, general manager of IBM Cloud Developer Services, “Watson services on IBM Cloud are enabling Guiding Eyes to prepare puppies in new and more effective ways. It’s also a great example of what humans, machines — and now dogs — can do together to use data to improve the world.”

For more, visit guidingeyes.org and ibm.com.

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