Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, February 15, 2011.

Watson: From Jeopardy to the Hospital?

IBM Touts Its Computer's Potential in Medicine

By William Weir

Watson the computer had proven itself a formidable force this week in answering questions about Olympic oddities and literary characters on "Jeopardy!" Might it be answering your doctor's questions about your health in the future?

That's how representatives for IBM Watson's creator see it. In the near future, they say, the technology that has gone into Watson can help doctors crunch massive amounts of data and eliminate human error when it comes to diagnosing conditions and prescribing medications.

The computing system was built by researchers from eight universities and IBM, reportedly at a cost of up to $2 billion. IBM officials boast that Watson doesn't just draw from a huge database of information, but can understand the idiosyncrasies of human language.

That's why it's able to answer "Jeopardy!" questions, which often feature wordplay. So far, it seems to be working. On Monday's show, the first of three, Watson tied for the lead at $5,000 with Brad Rutter, who holds the record for the most cash won on "Jeopardy." Ken Jennings, who holds the record for longest run on "Jeopardy!," trails at $2,000.

But ruling "Jeopardy!" is just the beginning, said Katharine Frase, vice president of IBM research. For instance, in cardiology, Watson's technology would analyze data to alert doctors to problems such as too much digitalis in blood tests or the overuse of diuretics. And Watson, she said, continues to learn and refine its abilities.

"The machine itself starts adding to its own knowledge base," she said.

Dr. Peter Schulman, a cardiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, cautioned against putting too much faith in fancy circuitry. Technology companies regularly talk about how their latest innovations will help medicine, Schulman said, but many don't pan out as promised.

"IBM's a good company; I'm not saying there's a nefarious purpose," he said. "But it remains to be seen."

And computers haven't been the driving force in his field. Advances in imaging, medication and better knowledge about how lifestyle affects health have made the biggest contributions.

Dr. Joseph Dell'Orfano, a cardiologist at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, said a Watson could be a useful addition. There's a lot of patient information to keep track of and anything that helps would be welcome, he said.

IBM's boast that Watson's technology could detect anomalies in MRI images also intrigues Dell'Orfano, a technology buff. "It's all digital data and the computer would be a lot better picking that up than the human eye does," he said. "It might at least be useful as a screen for a physician. I don't know if I would use it as the final diagnostician."

Picturing HAL 9000, the computer-gone-bad from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," Dell'Orfano is quick to add that Watson and other computers won't be replacing anyone's doctor.

"Ultimately," he said, "they're just tools, ones that we need to use properly."