Watson Goes to Medical School

February 18, 2011 – 8:08 am

Trouncing two human opponents on the televised US quiz show Jeopardy was, well, elementary for Watson, the IBM supercomputer endowed with Deep Question Answering (QA) software. The impressive and slightly troubling machine is moving on to more consequential challenges. IBM and Nuance Communications Inc. have announced a research agreement to explore, develop and commercialise the Watson computing system’s advanced analytics capabilities in the healthcare industry.

The research and technology initiative will combine IBM’s Deep QA, Natural Language Processing, and Machine Learning capabilities with Nuance’s speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of patients, notes a press release issued today by IBM. The two companies expect the first commercial manifestations of the collaboration to be available in 18 to 24 months.

Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine also are contributing their medical expertise and research to the collaborative effort. For example, physicians at Columbia University are helping to identify critical issues in the practice of medicine where the Watson technology may be able to contribute, and physicians at the University of Maryland are working to identify the best way that a technology like Watson could interact with medical practitioners to provide the maximum assistance.

Watson’s ability to analyse the meaning and context of human language, and quickly process information to find precise answers can assist decision makers, such as physicians and nurses, unlock important knowledge and facts buried within huge volumes of information, and offer answers they may not have considered to help validate their own ideas or hypotheses.

In fact, the computer’s ability to connect dots in ways that humans would not think to do is one of the more astonishing ramifications of this technology. In an article titled “Mind Games,” (free registration required) published in the 17 February issue of the Financial Times, Richard Waters observes that Watson draws from many different fields of knowledge and this enables the machine to find unexpected links. This process can “illuminate a complex problem or make predictions not possible with expertise in a single field,” writes Waters. Plus, it learns from its mistakes. When it gets an answer wrong, it will “go out and search for other correlated data that would give it a different outcome,” explains Merv Adrian from Gartner, a technology research company, who is quoted in the article.”It can crank away, looking for things that have predictive value, and consider things people haven’t suggested before.”

And you thought your phone was smart.

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