IBM To Roll Out Watson, M.D.

Watson and competitors during a Jeopardy! training round
Watson and competitors during a Jeopardy! training round

WBUR's Curt Nickisch reports:

Fresh off its Jeopardy! victory, IBM wants to roll out medical applications based on the same technologies its computer named Watson employed to whoop some of the game show's biggest winners.

"We didn't ultimately expect to generate a revenue stream by playing Jeopardy!," says David Ferrucci, head of IBM's Watson Project.

In a three-day run on the TV game show this week, the so-called "question-answering machine" outperformed Jeopardy! savants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, winning a $1 million dollar prize and even more valuable PR.

Still, International Business Machines wasn't just showing off its hardware, which companies will undoubtedly order, too. IBM's real feat was demonstrating the "natural language search" prowess it developed during the four-year project, which employed 25 people and cost tens of millions of dollars.

Will doctors soon have "Watson" at their fingertips? (Dave Shaw/WBUR)
Will doctors soon have "Watson" at their fingertips? (Dave Shaw/WBUR)

So IBM is moving quickly to apply the technology to health care. The company is partnering with Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications to develop and apply the Watson computing system to medicine

"Watson’s ability to deal with natural language across a wide collection of diverse information and make it more digestible for humans holds enormous potential to transform healthcare effectiveness, efficiency and patient outcomes," IBM says in a statement.

The company cites physician surveys that suggest primary care physicians spend less than twenty minutes face-to-face with each patient per visit on average, and they average little more than an hour each week reading medical journals.

IBM's David Ferrucci says a computer system could be designed to access vast medical libraries and a patient's own records to give doctors valuable information quickly.

"Inform the doctor quickly with the most current information," Ferrucci says. "Help them make faster, better decisions, both from a diagnosis perspective and from a treatment perspective."

What do you think? Would you feel more comfortable with Watson as a physician's assistant? Or do you feel nervous about having your health in the hands of artificial intelligence that incorrectly offered 'Toronto' to a Final Jeopardy round question under the category U.S. Cities?

And to hear more, check out On Point's show this week on Watson and AI.

This program aired on February 18, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Carey Goldberg

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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