The Supercomputer Watson gets its first job: Treating Cancer

"Jeopardy!" & IBM Man V. Machine Press ConferenceIBM’s Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing supercomputer that scored one for Team Robot Overlord two years ago, just put out its shingle as a doctor or, more specifically, as a combination lung cancer specialist and expert in the arcane branch of health insurance known as utilization management.  Thanks to a business partnership among IBM, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and WellPoint, health care providers will now be able to tap Watson’s expertise in deciding how to treat patients.

Pricing was not disclosed, but hospitals and health care networks who sign up will be able to buy or rent Watson’s advice from the cloud or their own server. Over the past two years, IBM’s researchers have shrunk Watson from the size of a master bedroom to a pizza-box-sized server that can fit in any data center. And they improved its processing speed by 240%. Now what was once was a fun computer-science experiment in natural language processing is becoming a real business for IBM and Wellpoint, which is the exclusive reseller of the technology for now. Initial customers include WestMed Practice Partners and the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine & Blood Disorders.

Even before the Jeopardy! success, IBM began to hatch bigger plans for Watson and there are few areas more in need of supercharged decision-support than health care. Doctors and nurses are drowning in information with new research, genetic data, treatments and procedures popping up daily. They often don’t know what to do, and are guessing as well as they can. WellPoint’s chief medical officer Samuel Nussbaum said at the press event today that health care pros make accurate treatment decisions in lung cancer cases only 50% of the time (a shocker to me). Watson, since being trained in this  medical specialty, can make accurate decisions 90% of the time. Patients, of course, need 100% accuracy, but making the leap from being right half the time to being right 9 out of ten times will be a huge boon for patient care. The best part is the potential for distributing the intelligence anywhere via the cloud, right at the point of care. This could be the most powerful tool we’ve seen to date for improving care and lowering everyone’s costs via standardization and reduced error. Chris Coburn, the Cleveland Clinic’s executive director for innovations, said at the event that he fully expects Watson to be widely deployed wherever the Clinic does business by 2020.

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