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Brainy Watson Computer to Tackle Cancer and Other Medical Research

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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IBM is so confident in its Watson cognitive computer, the company has launched a new business unit to sell the technology to academics and industry. Image courtesy of IBM.

After vanquishing humans on Jeopardy!, IBM says its Watson computer is ready to help save human lives. The company on Thursday announced it has created a new business unit specifically to advance Watson and deliver its artificially intelligent wisdom to research organizations, medical institutions and businesses so that they can process “big data” for detailed answers to complex questions. They won’t actually own a Watson computer—instead its services will rendered via a network connection (the “cloud computing” model).

IBM doesn’t launch new business units every day—or even every decade—chief executive Ginni Rometty noted during the Watson Group announcement. Indeed, the company is making a calculated bet—to the tune of more than $1 billion—on cognitive computing and the role it will play in making big data useful.

Unlike the programmable machines we currently use, cognitive computers mimic the human brain. Our PCs, tablets and smartphones, not to mention the larger computers they communicate with on the back end, require new software applications for each new task. Watson isn’t programmed—it learns, Rometty said. Such intuition is necessary to deal with the large amount of digital pictures, social media messages and other unstructured data that have proliferated in recent years. “Watson has thousands and thousands of algorithms that it runs,” she said. “It can find the needle in the haystack, but it [also] understands the haystack.”

IBM has already begun making inroads with Watson. Late last year two prominent medical facilities began testing the revamped Watson as a tool for data analysis and physician training. The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center envisions Watson can help doctors match patients with clinical trials, observe and fine-tune treatment plans, and assess risks as part of M. D. Anderson’s “Moon Shots” mission to eliminate cancer. Physicians at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University are hoping IBM’s technology can help them make more informed and accurate decisions faster, based on electronic medical records.

To work with physicians and medical schools across a number of different locations, Watson has ingested a large portion of the world’s medical information from journals, health records and doctors’ notes, said John Kelly, an IBM senior vice president and director of IBM Research, where Watson originated, in an interview with Scientific American in November. Over the past six to 12 months Watson has been working with M. D. Anderson oncologists, for example, to help speed certain discoveries related to leukemia.

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At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Assistant Professor of Leukemia Dr. Courtney DiNardo uses IBM's Watson cognitive system while consulting with patient Rich Ware, on October 18, 2013. Image courtesy of IBM.

Watson’s learning curve hasn’t been entirely smooth, and IBM has at times had difficulty getting the computer to deliver as promised, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. Problems have arisen as IBM works to adapt the cognitive computer to the specific needs of the organizations using it, according to the WSJ. The generic, yet customizable, software that computer companies have sold to large numbers of customers during the era of programmable computers simply isn’t an option at this time for next-generation cognitive systems.

Besides targeting healthcare with Watson, IBM has begun to work with financial, retail and travel companies as well. The idea is to give researchers in these industries a natural language interface with their computers and to present the most relevant information—using graphs and other visuals—in response to their queries. Another key feature is Watson’s ability to assign a confidence score to answers it provides. The system used this to great effect when competing on Jeopardy!, as it had to search a factual database in response to questions, determine a confidence level and, based on that level, buzz in ahead of two of the game’s top competitors.

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 6:47 pm 01/9/2014

    Dump all of fundamental gravitation theory in there – classical and quantum, spacetime curvature and torsion, metric and non-metric, etc. Dump it all in there, grind it fine, see if it bakes a loaf or cancels away at the end.

    “Buy IBM” was the 20th century’s punchline. A manager could not be penalized for buying what all managers bought, and managers bought IBM like Empress Eugenie’s circle. Down in the trenches, we were swapping for Compacs and its better DOS. In the early 21th century, one suspects Google Brain over Watson. The odd and afflicted will take you places white shirts and skinny black ties disbelieve.

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  2. 2. Mplsgirl 2:47 pm 01/10/2014

    IBM HAS produced profitable & effective medical data services & technology historically…Nazi Germany’s CONCENTRATION CAMPS.

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  3. 3. DrDaystrom 12:40 am 01/15/2014

    True, Mplsgirl. IBM did help the Nazi’s ‘keep tally of the work’ they were doing on the Final Solution. Search ‘IBM and the Holocaust’ to find any number of books about this little know subject.

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