IBM’s Watson Goes To Medical School

Interesting article today in Medgadget about IBM’s super-computer Watson, which last year famously defeated the human champions of TV quiz show Jeopardy!. This year, IBM has been testing Watson out in the medical field. This is one of the ways it hopes to make money from the technology. IBM has partnered with the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, to ‘teach’ Watson about medicine. ref:

A concern in the medical establishment is that the Watson technology could replace clinicians, “beginning with fields based on pattern recognition (e.g. pathology, radiology, etc).” But according to Dr. James Stoller from Cleveland Clinic, in effect Watson will at best become a “capable sidekick.”. He told Medgadget:

“Watson is being developed as a bedside clinical support making, not a replacement for specific medical fields. Complex clinical decisions at the bedside have to integrate medical knowledge with patient preferences and situational awareness. I don’t think a decision support system will replace the human ability to match preferences with recommendations. This being said, Watson will hopefully provide the encyclopedic knowledge and support so that the clinician can make an optimal decision – call it a “capable sidekick.” Clinicians will still play an integral and irreplaceable role in the delivery of care.”

Essentially, Watson will deliver physicians a set of probablities for various treatments. The doctor then selects the one he/she feels is best applicable to the patient. A recent Fast Company article explained how this would work (ref:

“Also significant is how Watson renders an answer. Unlike its responses in Jeopardy!, in the real world it will perform as it did for Kris at Sloan-Kettering—by giving not a single solution but a range of probable solutions, each backed up by Watson’s evidence and ranked by its level of confidence. In the lingo of computer science, that makes the machine probabilistic rather than deterministic.”

I think IBM has a winner with this technology, provided it gets through the current trial period well. My bet is that this will be a huge leap forward for medicine. Doctors can’t be expected to have an encyclopedic mind about their field. Plus when you add genomic data to the mix, which will become common place in the near future, it becomes impossible for a single human brain to process that much data about a patient.

The Watson technology could make a huge impact in medicine, by giving physicians the data-processing and analytical support they will need in the genomics era.