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Paging Dr. Watson: IBM to apply Jeopardy! victor's analytic skills to medical diagnoses


Sony, Jeopardy, IBM, computerThe answer is: For its next assignment, this Jeopardy! champion will have to work on its bedside manner.

If you replied, "What is Watson?" give yourself a round of applause.

With last night's big game show victory under its belt, IBM has its sights set on applying the high-performance computer's advanced analytics capabilities to the healthcare industry. IBM announced Thursday that it is teaming up with Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications to integrate that company's speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding (CLU) technology with Watson's "Deep Question Answering" natural language processing and machine learning capabilities. The result, which could be ready in as soon as 18 months, is expected to improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

IBM paints the following scenario: A doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could literally ask Watson—running Nuance's software—for help. Once the question is processed, Watson would quickly tap all the related texts, reference materials and prior cases as well as the latest findings in journals and medical literature to formulate an answer. A score indicating Watson's level of confidence in its answer could even be provided. Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are helping IBM and Nuance by providing the medical expertise necessary to adapt the technology to a healthcare setting.

Nuance is perhaps best known for its work with Ford to provide voice-recognition software for drivers using the car company's SYNC an in-car communications and entertainment system.

IBM is also in discussions with an unnamed consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson that could interact with consumers on a variety of subjects such as buying decisions and technical support, The New York Times reports.

The Jeopardy! episodes this week served as a way for IBM to measure its progress in developing technology that would come up with answers to an incredibly wide array of questions covering many topics. IBM wanted to size up Watson's performance along five metrics, according to David Ferrucci, the IBM researcher who led Watson's development. These included the ability to respond to a broad and open domain (Jeopardy! questions come from any number of categories), questions formed in complex language with a variety of grammatical structures (often including wordplay that helps make the show more entertaining), high precision (there is a penalty for wrong answers), accurate confidence (betting depends on faith in one's answer) and high speed (the first player to buzz in gets first crack at answering a question).

Watson got off to a slow start during the three-day trivia tournament staged at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. After Monday night's round, Watson was tied with former Jeopardy! champ Brad Rutter at $5,000, with another former Jeopardy! winner, Ken Jennings, sitting in second place at $2,000. Watson opened up a big lead during the second round and finished Wednesday night with the strangely precise amount of $77,147 to Jennings' $24,000 and Rutter's $21,600.

In a brief, informal, unscientific poll Scientific American took on Monday of 26 print and online staffers to determine who would win and by how much, half chose Watson. The predicted margin of victory ranged between $5,000 and $25,000—no one foresaw Watson running up the score the way it did.

IBM plans to donate its $1 million Jeopardy! prize to World Vision, a worldwide relief and development organization, and World Community Grid, whose mission is to create the world's largest public computing grid. Half of Jennings's $300,000 winnings and Rutter's $200,000 purse will go to Seattle-based nonprofit VillageReach and Pennsylvania's Lancaster County Community Foundation, respectively.

Gracious in defeat, Jennings commented (via an IBM press release), "I've studied artificial intelligence, and I can say that this is an impressive and unprecedented moment. A few years ago, I didn't think it was possible for a computer to play at this level. IBM knocked my socks off with how fast they've caught up."

Image of [left to right] Jennings, Watson and Rutter, courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

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

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