Health care diagnoses may be next for IBM's Watson. The supercomputer is a workload-optimized system that can answer questions posed in natural language over a nearly unlimited range of knowledge. Photo Courtesy IBM

Fresh from "Jeopardy!" victory, Watson to take on health care

Makers of the supercomputer envision it helping doctors diagnose patients, but doubts persist.

By — Posted March 14, 2011

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Watson -- the supercomputer whose "mind" outwitted the best two human contestants to ever play "Jeopardy!" -- is coming to health care. But it's as a friend, not a foe, says Watson's maker, IBM.

Before the last of the celebratory confetti was swept off the "Jeopardy!" studio floor, Watson's developers were planning to head to Orlando, Fla. They weren't, like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, announcing they were going to Disney World. Instead, they were there for the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society meeting to explain to thousands in the health technology field how Watson would find a place with physicians and patients.

At a Feb. 21 presentation on the exhibit floor of HIMSS, Paul Ricci, CEO of Nuance, the voice recognition software developer that has partnered with IBM to bring Watson to health care, talked about the advantages Watson had in "Jeopardy!" that could benefit health care.

Using a technology called DQA, or deep question and answer, combined with natural language processing, Watson analyzed and processed more than 200 million documents each time a question was asked to produce the most probable answer within seconds. Watson is an artificial intelligence computer system made up of 90 servers, with the processing power equal to 2,880 computers, and running hundreds of algorithms simultaneously to process human language to deduce meanings from clues to produce a probable answer. The "Jeopardy!" appearance was the culmination of more than two years of research by IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

Because much of the success in health care is finding the right answers before it's too late, IBM believes Watson could dramatically improve health care delivery by offering, in minimal time, solutions that have a high level of certainty.

Robert Sicconi, program director of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, said one of the problems in health care is that 10,000 medical papers are published each year. There's no way a human could read all those papers and recall the information in them with the accuracy and speed Watson could bring, he said. And Watson has the ability to become smarter over time as more information is added to its knowledge base, Sicconi said.

Part of IBM's motivation for the HIMSS appearance was to appeal to other health care companies and organizations that can partner with IBM to provide information that can be added to Watson's information base. IBM has forged partnership agreements with eight major universities, including the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.


Dave Ferrucci, IBM chief scientist of IBM's Watson Computing System Photo Courtesy IBM

Josko J. Silobrcic, MD, associate partner with IBM Healthlink Solutions, said these partnerships will focus not just on adding content to Watson, but figuring out the best ways for physicians to use the Watson technology in a way that is effective but not disruptive to their work flow.

A commercial product is not expected for 18 to 24 months. At this point, it's not known what that product will look like or how physicians will use it.

Health technology experts and vendors at the Orange County Convention Center buzzed about IBM's appearance to discuss Watson. But that doesn't mean all the buzz was positive.

"I think the [health] community respects what's been accomplished. They think it's neat," said Edward Shortliffe, MD, president of the American Medical Informatics Assn., who was speaking on his own behalf. "But we need to understand more about how it works.

"You cannot overestimate the importance of the extent to which that program has been written for a single purpose -- to play 'Jeopardy!' And solving medical diagnostic problems is not the same as playing 'Jeopardy!' "

Dr. Silobrcic said concerns expressed by some in the physician community that Watson cannot process science the same way a highly trained physician can, were mostly based on misconceptions about what Watson is -- and what it is not.

Watson will never replace clinicians, he said. It will basically be a clinical decision support tool, but one that is more advanced than anything available today, he said.

However, Watson's potential future competitors said at HIMSS that they weren't so sure IBM's technology would be a major breakthrough.

"What does IBM's Watson bring to the table that isn't there already?" asked Jason Maude, CEO and co-founder of Isabel Healthcare, the developer of Isabel, a diagnostic decision support tool that the American Medical Association has made available on Amagine, its Web-based physician portal.

"In medicine they are saying it's not going to be ready for two years. And from what they have described, I don't see it bringing anything different to what Isabel is already doing today," he said.

Maude said Isabel has been "learning" since it was created 10 years ago. In addition to the system continually being updated, user feedback, in the form of thumbs up or thumbs down to rate the information, gets built into the algorithms. The result is a product that "is better today than it was yesterday and will be better tomorrow than it is today."

Dr. Shortliffe said the technology in Watson cannot be compared to diagnostic decision support tools available today. "I think it's kind of an apples-to-oranges comparison," he said.

Dr. Shortliffe, though unsure whether Watson will have a major impact in health care, said he will be interested to see what comes out of IBM's efforts to reformat Watson for clinical use.

And whatever Watson's strengths, the supercomputer lost a round on March 1, when it was bested in a "Jeopardy!" battle of wits by Rep. Rush Holt (D, N.J.), a physicist who was a five-time winner on the show 35 years ago.

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