Can Watson Do for Health Care What He’s Doing for Jeopardy?

Starting today, Jeopardy will air three episodes in which “Watson,” a supercomputer developed by IBM, is a contestant. What are the implications for medicine?

Performing well on Jeopardy and diagnosing sick patients have similar prerequisites: a broad fund of knowledge, ability to process subtlety and ambiguity in natural language, efficient time management, and probabilistic assessment of different possibilities. Like Jeopardy clues, a patient’s symptoms, medical history, physical exam findings and laboratory results present clues that must be synthesized into a differential diagnosis. While computer systems to assist clinical decision-making have existed for decades, adoption of legacy systems has been hindered by rigid algorithms that require translation of natural language into machine language and heavy reliance on user input.

What sets Watson apart is that it could take facts gathered in natural language from a patient exam and generate possible diagnoses ranked by levels of confidence based on its understanding of medical knowledge in textbooks, research papers, case reports, and other sources that are used by human physicians. Watson combines what has long been a strength of computers, perfect prompted recall from an expansive volume of knowledge, with what has been considered to be the sole province of man, ability to process natural language.

Full article on how the supercomputer could transform medicine.

Comments (14)

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  1. Stephen C. says:

    I don’t know what Watson can do. I plan to watch tonight.

  2. Judy says:

    Just think. If we could use the computer in medicine, we would have to call him Doctor Watson.

  3. Virginia says:

    There’s a huge amount of irony here: The technology has all of these possible applications for medicine, and yet, we’re using it for play Jeopardy.

  4. Joe S. says:

    It’s elementary, Judy. Elementary.

  5. Tom H. says:

    Maybe he’ll have an office on Baker’s street.

  6. Attila the Pun says:

    Blimey, I can hear Holmes now, “Come, Watson! The game is afoot!” How times have changed…the game is no longer a foot, it’s a Jeopardy. I’m rooting for Doc Watson. Not the most romantic way to spend Valentines but it should be at lease a three night contest.

    Did you hear the one about Sherlock and the murder’s door????

    Sherlock Holmes turned to Dr Watson and announced: “The murderer lives in the house with the yellow door.”

    “Good grief, Holmes,” said Watson. “How on earth did you deduce that?”

    “It’s a lemon entry, my dear Watson.”

  7. Joh Goodman says:

    Attila, thanks for entertaining us.

  8. Attila the Pun says:

    I love to leave ’em groaning and rolling their eyes….

  9. john Goodman says:

    As I was watching Jeopardy last night, it occured to me that we may be creating a higher life form.

  10. Marvin says:

    I suspect that it is not the illustrious Holmes and Watson for whom IBM’s wunderkind is named. Me thinks it is more likely the founder of IBM, Thomos J. Watson, and son:

  11. Tom H. says:

    Higher life form? Or superior life form?

  12. Donald Jordan says:

    HOLMES: Any Schoolboy can understand that President Obama’s healthcare plan is a great step forward.

    WATSON: I should like to know how much schooling that would require…

    HOLMES: Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary…


  13. Devon Herrick says:

    A few years ago I read an article in the journal Access to Energy that explained how mass spectrometry has the potential to transform medicine. If done in volume, mass spectrometry machines could scan bodily fluids (breath, saliva, fecal material) for markers for disease. People would know the state of their health from a baseline. This (coupled with millions of outcomes) would be the dataset that a super computer would need.