Soon, Watson the supercomputer could be assisting in doctors' decision-making. Image: Flickr / theogeo / CC-BY

IBM’s supercomputer Watson has proven its problem-solving ability by stumping “Jeopardy!” superstars. That problem-solving ability is now being used to aid in medical diagnostics. Still in the test phases, Watson’s diagnostics programming may research everything from personal blogs to emerging research.

Watson’s unique problem-solving ability

Watson, the IBM supercomputer, was originally built to win “Jeopardy!” In order to do that, the computer was programmed with millions of pieces of information, deciphered natural language and created a list of possible answers to a question. In the showdown against two of the game show’s biggest stars, Watson won handily. Watson’s problem-solving ability is especially unique because it requires an understanding of natural language that can be very difficult to program into computers. The “probability engine” style of problem-solving also considers all logical possibilities, rather than giving a single solution to any problem.

Watson goes to medical school

After winning “Jeopardy!” Watson’s programmers indicated that they thought the problem-solving ability of the computer could be put to use in the medical field. Just a few months later, their prediction is coming true. Rather than the library of encyclopedias, movie scripts and historical information, Watson is being fed medical journals and diagnostic manuals. Columbia University medical researchers are assisting with training Watson for medical use, and medical students are feeding the computer hypothetical patients in order to test the diagnostic algorithms. When fed a list of symptoms, Watson will return a list of possible diagnoses and suggested treatments. Watson will also consider drug allergies and complicating symptoms.

Considering newly available information

One of the biggest benefits of Watson’s ability to digest all available information is the inclusion of newly available information. Watson’s programmers are considering the possibility of adding medical blogs and off-label drug uses to Watson’s database. These pieces of information could help diagnose difficult diseases or suggest treatments that doctors may or may not have heard of. Watson’s diagnostic ability also has the benefit of not forgetting leaving out any piece of information. This does not, however, mean that doctors would no longer be necessary. Doctors will be able to take Watson’s suggested possibilities and make final determinations regarding courses of treatment for their patients. IBM engineers are researching how to create “Watson portals” that doctors could consult during the diagnostics for a patient, but in the end, the doctor and patient would be the ones to make the final call.

Sources

USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2011-05-21-watson-medicine_n.htm
CBS News http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20065277-10391704.html

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