Remember Watson, the IBM supercomputer which made headlines last year by trouncing the top two contestants on the TV game show, Jeopardy?
Watson's million-dollar prize went to charity and now Big Blue is seeking gainful employment for Watson other than as a professional game show contestant.
Today, IBM's chief medical scientist visited a Minneapolis hospital to talk about how Watson's artificial intelligence could help doctors wade through loads of research data and apply that knowledge to treating patients.
Bulking up on a steady diet of the latest medical research, journals and textbooks, IBM's Watson training to be a doctor's assistant — an assistant who understands natural language and can provide a physician with a list of possible diagnoses and rank potential treatments.
At this stage, Watson is far from being able to do that job in a clinical setting, but that is the hope.
Named after IBM's founder, Thomas J. Watson, a team of IBM scientists created the supercomputer to analyze human language, process huge amounts of information and return answers in less than three seconds.
IBM Chief Medical Scientist Dr. Martin Kohn told a group of health care workers at Abbott-Northwestern hospital that Watson would not make decisions for them; the goal is to help them make better decisions. Kohn said there is no way that physicians can keep current on all the latest medical breakthroughs, but Watson could.
"The Watson that played Jeopardy! was able to read and understand 200 million pages of text in three seconds," Kohn said. "Think of how many journal articles that is."
Health care is increasingly pushing doctors to choose treatments based on the best evidence available about what is effective. IBM is touting Watson as a way to provide that analysis on the spot, but the computer still needs to get up to speed. Watson is getting that training at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which agreed to collaborate with IBM.
The Cancer Center is providing Watson 1.5 million patient case histories and its specialists are developing systems that will allow Watson to correctly analyze medical questions.
Sloan-Kettering's head of Thoracic Oncology, Mark Kris says Watson will be helpful to cancer doctors because oncology research moves at a rapid pace. He says Watson can provide doctors with an instant consultation.
"The way we doctors work — particularly where we have a case where it's not as straightforward — we ask our colleagues, we ask specialists in the field," Kris said. "In essence, Watson will have that capability."
Watson is not without its limits, however. Despite single-handedly beating the Jeopardy! champions, it also made what IBM concedes were some "spectacular errors." In one of the final rounds, the category was U.S. cities.
For all of Watson's vaunted processing power, the computer came up with an answer that wasn't even in the right country. Watson's human rivals got the answer right.
Watson's miss received a lot of ink. But IBM's Kohn explains Watson's confidence in that response was very low. But under the game's rules offering no response would have been a guaranteed wrong answer. Kohn says in the clinical setting Watson will provide physicians with its confidence level in a list of diagnoses and treatments.
In March, IBM announced it had formed a Watson Healthcare Advisory Board which includes representatives from leading cancer centers. Mayo Clinic is notably absent.
Dr. Dawn Milliner of Mayo said the world renowned clinic is in discussions with IBM about a potential role.
"We've been talking for some time and we continue to do so because we think this is a promising technology," Milliner said. "But it's a matter of the right timing and the right project for us to collaborate on to move this forward."
IBM and Sloan-Kettering hope to have Watson ready to begin a pilot project analyzing cases by the end of the year.
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