IBM officials didn't pay 20 to 25 researchers to spend four years on this project just to look good in front of Alex Trebek. They wanted to develop technologies that can tackle real-life problems. And one of the most promising areas is medicine, with Watson serving as a kind of digital physician's assistant.
Watson's ability to understand standard English — what's known as natural language processing — means that doctors wouldn’t have to come up with carefully computer-coded questions to enable its expertise. Instead, the patient history, test results, etc., could be fed into Watson and the system would prepare a range of diagnostic and treatment possibilities, at the doctor's request, ranked by level of confidence.
Watson's machine learning component will make accessing a huge database of medical information fast and painless.
In addition to the standard medical reference materials available, Watson could also analyze anonymous patient records from previous cases, looking for relevant patterns and outcomes.
This is especially relevant for older patients, who may be experiencing a variety of medical conditions at the same time. Watson could search for patient records in roughly the same age range with the same medical history as the current patient, look for cases with similar symptoms and explore the level of success achieved with different treatment options. This level of customized information wouldn't be practical without powerful computer support.
And the system would be interactive, not glued to a single answer. Watson could produce several options for the physician to consider, ranked by best probable outcome. Then the doctor could ask questions, such as "What information did you base this on?" and "What if I told you the patient had developed a rash?"
IBM recently announced a partnership with Nuance, a company specializing in speech recognition within the medical field, to allow Watson to understand verbal questions (on Jeopardy!, questions were sent to Watson as text messages). This would allow a doctor to call Watson by phone from a patient's bedside for a live consultation.
Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are collaborating on the project, which could be ready for practical use in as little as 18 months.
Paging Dr. Watson!