IBM’s Watson Supercomputer to Start Diagnosing Real Patients

Watson is a computer created by IBM which gained international notoriety in 2011 when it beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the most successful Jeopardy contestants ever, in a three-way faceoff in an exhibition match on the US gameshow.

Actually, annihilate is more accurate, considering that it left the game with $77 147, leaving Rutter and Jennings trailing spectacularly with $21 600 and $24 000 respectively. watson_01

That will perhaps go on to be a watershed moment in early AI stages to be written in our future. It certainly heralded the onset of big data and analytics as ubiquitous IT terms of our time.

And although it raised people’s awareness about the ‘intelligence’ of computer systems, it seemed to fade from the limelight for a while. That however, was far from the case.

Unbeknownst to many, IBM researchers and computer scientists were devising ways to expand the computer’s capabilities to real-life applications with a potential benefit to humanity. And they’ve done it. Because, Watson will shortly begin diagnosing patients at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Leslie Horn, writing for Gizmodo, explains how this process will work:

Watson will essentially take data from a person’s chart, crunch it through some algorithms, and come up with a couple of plans of action. For example, it might suggest two courses of chemotherapy, but it will also say that it has a 90 percent level of confidence in one and just 75 percent in the other. That’s when an actual doctor would come in and make the final decision.

Not only will this save medical staff loads of time in an ever-pressured hospital environment, but it also has potentially further reaching consequences as well. Think about this – researchers eventually think (and hope) that Watson could provide any doctor anywhere with the world’s best second opinion.IBM_Watson2

A physician in a community hospital in cash and time-strapped medical center in South Africa could have instant access to everything that the medical field’s best oncologists have taught Watson.

What is more, Watson will be able to excavate facts beyond the ken of Sloan-Kettering’s current lineup of specialists. As Mark Kris, an oncologist at the hospital says, “We could ask Watson: What is the best treatment for this rare condition based on all of Sloan-Kettering’s records?” It could then go through several years of cancer cases looking for the most successful outcomes. In time, it could even look at hospital records from around the world.

As Jon Gertner writes in Fast Company:

“As Manoj Saxena, the IBM executive now in charge of commercializing Watson, tells me: “It’s like being able to take a knowledge worker–cancer specialist, nurse, bond trader, portfolio manager, whatever–and equip that person with the best knowledge, and have it available at their fingertips.” As Watson evolves, Saxena believes, these knowledge banks will significantly alter how, and how well, humans make decisions.”

As with any innovative new technology, there are usually drawbacks to be considered as well. As Greg Marquez states in the comments section:

“So… if Citibank asks Watson, ” Watson, which of our customers are least likely to check their bill for incorrect charges?” or “Watson which treatement option will be most profitable for my practice?” Watson is going to answer that? People seem to be ignoring the fact that greater computing power also helps people who would do bad things.”

Nevertheless, its an exciting new application for a powerful new technology. If users can find ways to negate the potential drawbacks, it certainly has far-reaching positive implications.