After Jeopardy!, IBM Moves Supercomputer on to Medical Research

IBM and Nuance, a speech-recognition products vendor, have announced a five-year research agreement to explore ways for the health care industry to tap into the capabilities of IBM's Watson supercomputer, InformationWeek reports.

The two companies are collaborating with Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (McGee, InformationWeek, 2/17).

Watson Details

IBM researchers developed the Watson supercomputer over the past four years.

The machine -- which had a successful run as a contestant on the television trivia show Jeopardy! -- is powered by 90 servers and 360 computer chips (Tibken, Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, 2/16).

Health Care Implications

IBM engineers, along with Columbia and University of Maryland researchers, are seeking to identify how Watson could work with health care professionals (Gaudin, Computerworld, 2/17).

Researchers will use Nuance technology to develop a "physician assistant" that could mine data from health care providers' existing electronic health record systems, medical images and dictated reports to help guide physicians' decisions. Data from other sources -- such as best practices and other evidence-based literature -- also could be factored in to the technology (InformationWeek, 2/17).

Eliot Siege -- a professor and vice chair at Maryland's department of diagnostic radiology -- said, "Having a computer understand and present the information to me is a huge step towards allowing me to make a better diagnosis" (Castillo, Time, 2/17).

IBM and Nuance expect to bring the first Watson health-related products to market within 24 months (Denison, Boston Globe, 2/17).

Caution Urged

Some stakeholders are saying expectations about Watson's applicability to health care should be tempered.

Peter Schulman -- a cardiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center -- said technology vendors are quick to tout their products as ways to improve health care, but many do not fulfill expectations.

Joseph Dell'Orfano -- a cardiologist at Connecticut-based St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center -- said that computers are "just tools, ones that we need to use properly" (Weir, Hartford Courant, 2/15).

Katherine Frase -- vice president of industry solutions at IBM Research -- said that a computer would not be able to determine if a patient is lying, as a physician could. She added, "I don't think that any machine is ever going to take the place of the decision making process of the human" (Time, 2/17).

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