By Dr. Martin Kohn, Chief Medical Scientist for IBM Research
Two years ago, IBM’s Watson computer shocked the world when it beat two past grand champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!
Watson isn’t playing around anymore.
Watson and the technological leaps forward that made it so revolutionary — the ability to understand human speech, make sense of huge amounts of complex information in split seconds, rank answers based on probability, and learn from its mistakes — are being put to work.
In health care, Watson is helping doctors tailor medical treatment to every patient’s situation in a time when the amount of medical information is doubling every five years. We are working with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Wellpoint, a private health insurance company, by immersing Watson in the complexities of cancer treatment and the explosion of genetic research, which has set the stage to transform care practices for many cancer patients by providing highly specialized and personalized treatments. The goal is to make Watson a highly proficient physician’s assistant.
Dr. Larry Norton, a world-renowned oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering who is helping to train Watson, said, “This is more than a machine. Computer science is going to evolve rapidly and medicine will evolve with it. This is co-evolution. We’ll help each other.”
Medicine is not alone in benefiting from Watson.
In finance, government, and customer care, Watson is beginning to tackle big, thorny challenges. By giving retailers the tools they need to respond to today’s highly informed, hyper-involved consumers who expect personalized responses — quickly and correctly — to their questions. Or enabling banks to improve and simplify the banking experience, so customers can make the right decisions for their specific situation right now in this ever more complex, fast moving financial world.
In the process, Watson is ushering in a new age of computing — the era of cognitive computing that will transform industries and society. Cognitive systems will be designed to deal with modern complexity in a similar way the human brain does — with its speed and adaptability — and to work with us more the way the way that we work.
And not a minute too soon. Our information-driven world faces real problems. Society has become one massive data feed, with information flowing in from corporate networks, supply chains, Twitter, Facebook and texts. We’re more informed than ever, and also more overwhelmed. Meanwhile, our existing computing architecture is about to barrel straight into a wall in terms of speed, performance and storage.
We need smarter, more efficient information systems that can sense, learn, and predict in order to help us analyze and think. We can’t afford to rely solely on computers that must be programmed in advance for nearly every situation they encounter. To get the most out of the avalanche of big data, we need cognitive systems that can learn or react the way we do.
Since Jeopardy!, Watson has become 240 percent faster and 75 percent smaller. Watson can now run on a single server, which is the size of four stacked pizza boxes, onsite or through the cloud. And that’s why organizations can start bringing Watson into their operations as an assistant, to help sift through the information they’re collecting, learn from that data and how it’s been applied in the past, and provide specific suggestions quickly and efficiently. Collecting data is relatively easy. Using it effectively and learning from it is a challenge.
We’re just beginning to get a taste of what Watson can help us do. Organizations are eager to try this new approach out because we all know that if we can use the data we’re amassing we can transform how we do business, get healthier and improve our environment.
Learn more about Watson in Healthcare here.
About the Author
Martin Kohn, MD, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, is currently Chief Medical Scientist for IBM Research. During a 30-year career in clinical practice, Dr. Kohn has specialized in emergency medicine. He is certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine, and has practiced in New York, Ohio and California. He is the author of numerous articles published on clinical subjects and has devoted his career to improving health care and clinical processes.
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