After Winning Jeopardy, IBM's Watson Is Going to Help Healthcare

Posted by Alissa Walker

We moved a few steps closer to the Singularity last night, as IBM's supercomputer Watson won the heavily-hyped Jeopardy match against its two human opponents, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Although Watson slipped a few times—answering "What is Toronto?" to a question about U.S. Cities (what an idiot ... or was it just toying with us?)—the best part of the entire match was probably when Ken Jennings added this Simpsons-inspired quip to his Final Jeopardy answer: "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords." 

After mopping the floor with these puny man-brained competitors, Watson won't be flaunting his cyber-celebrity in a series of bad reality shows. Instead, the technology that IBM developed is going to work in the healthcare industry. Today IBM announced a partnership with Nuance Communications that will explore how Watson's speech recognition and analytical skills, paired with the ability to quickly index data from case studies and medical histories, could help with diagnosis and treatment in a hospital setting.

According to The New York Times, Watson's encyclopedic knowledge and reasoning skills could prove invaluable to physicians:

On Thursday it plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.

I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”

Think about it. Every time a doctor diagnoses you, he's only able to access the relatively small amount of medical information he has stored in his brain, cross-referenced with whatever is written on your chart. Watson could search hundreds of years of case studies and contrast it with the most up-to-date research being performed in labs around the world. The technology could do the same thing for medical records; instead of just digitizing them, a Watson-like brain would index and analyze a lifetime of medical treatment.

Forget Dr. House. I want to be treated by Dr. Watson.