Friday, September 16, 2011

Watson, Come Here, I Need You

As I came to the dinner table a few nights ago, there on the one-eyed monster was a rerun of the classic TV game show Jeopardy. Now I am used to suffering through the latest Hollywood gossip and new movie or TV show promotions barely disguised as breaking news on a video magazine show my wife enjoys. Apparently it had been replaced that day  with a sporting event forcing my wife to channel surf until she found something of interest or a pot boiled over. I am not sure which caused her to stop on the channel with the game show but it turned out to be a happy accident. I didn't pay much attention until I noticed there were only two human contestants. At the podium in the middle was Watson, the IBM computer that became a Jeopardy champ.


Like most, I had read and heard about Watson but never actually watched it in competition. It was fascinating to see the categories, "answers" and the responses Watson developed virtually instantly. As you know the show revolves around a game board with answers from science, history, politics, music and other subjects. The answers are clues, often complicated with puns, misspelled words and popular terms within the context of the category name. You structure your response in the form of a question. 


According to an article in PC World,  Watson has some 200 million pages of content stored in 4 terabytes of space, almost 3,000 processor cores, 16 terabytes of memory and 6 million rules used to select the most likely answers. This is an enormous about of processing power and data. 


Watson has the ability to understand the meaning of natural language and can put a question into context, research it and devise a set of likely responses which it ranks in order of most to least probable. If Watson has a high enough degree of confidence it will activate a device that triggers the buzzer on the show. Recognized by the host, Alex Trebec, Watson speaks the answer. What a truly remarkable feat of software engineering. 


Clearly IBM did not set out to build a machine that could sweep the TV game show circuit. One could imagine Watson doing well on Wheel of Fortune and absolutely killing it on The Price Is Right. But my guess is Watson was destined to be used for better purposes. 


This week IBM and WellPoint announced the first commercial use of Watson. It will be used to improve patient care by helping physicians determine the most likely causes and treatment options in complex cases. Imagine how effectively Watson can leverage an extensive knowledge base of medical information. Symptoms of known diseases, treatments and associated cure rates, effectiveness of drugs and their interactions, medical procedures, recent studies and so on can all be combined with personal medical history and data collected from a physical examination. Watson can instantly assimilate all of this data and assist a physician in developing treatments. The amount of medical information and cost of health care are both growing at a very high rate. Watson will greatly increase efficiency and compress the time needed to diagnose and begin treating illness. 


This is the first of what promises to be many innovative uses for the technology of Watson. We can only imagine what IBM are going to do with it next. 


Captain Joe

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