Will Jeopardy’s IBM Watson Make Your Next Medical Diagnosis?

By now most people know that IBM Watson is the computer that Jeopardy contestants went up against on the popular television show. The idea was to feed enough information into the computer’s data bank so that Watson could answer any of the trivia questions asked. Now, the creators behind IBM Watson are taking this concept a step further and intend to use the computer in the medical field.

In preparation for Jeopardy, Watson’s data banks were filled with books, encyclopedias, dictionaries and movie scripts. So is it too far-fetched to think that if this computer could be filled with enough information to answer trivia questions on Jeopardy, that you couldn’t fill it with enough medical data so that it could diagnose an actual medical condition? IBM has now filled Watson’s data banks with medical books and journals. Recently they provided a sneak peek into Watson’s transition from trivia genius to medical guru.

Unlike, Jeopardy, where Watson only came back with a single answer, it will now provide a list of possible diagnoses based on the symptoms input into the computer and ranked in order of probability. Watson will also provide a confidence rating for each diagnosis. The computer is designed to provide a diagnosis which only has a small likelihood of being right. This is very important because while nine out of ten times most people will have a common medical ailment, this is not always the case. Sometimes you medical problem is more rare and may fall in that 4% range. Watson is designed to list all possible diagnoses no matter what its probability.

Watson will not be the first computer designed to diagnose medical conditions. Both Artemis and Isabel are automated programs that have already been around for a few years and are designed to accomplish this same task. In fact, last fall the Orlando Health hospital network in Florida began using Isabel. Additionally, a demonstration of Isabel showed it was very similar to IBM’s Watson. So, why do we need a computer from IBM that will do the same thing?

Well, Watson does provide medical personnel with some real world advantages over the automated systems currently in place. First, Watson’s data banks are huge and can hold a tremendous amount of information. Second, IBM’s computer is faster at returning a possible diagnosis. The most important advantage, however, is that Watson does a better job at interpreting non medical terms. A patient that comes into the doctor’s office might say they are having difficulty swallowing. Watson can take that information and match it with its actual medical term which is dysphagia. Its speed, vast repository of information, and ability to understand plain language catapults Watson to the top of its field.

The ability to recognize plain language provides IBM with the possibility of loading internet blogs into the computer’s data banks. People all over the world post descriptions of their medical symptoms and side effects in an effort to get answers from other people who are experiencing similar complaints. If Watson could be a repository for this information, the benefits could be invaluable to doctors.

Watson is meant to assist doctors with diagnosing and treating patients, not replace them. Medical advances are occurring at warp speed and even the most diligent doctor cannot keep up with all the changes. Watson could provide them with the largest medical reference book ever imagined. Just keeping up with the latest drugs, studies and journals is an enormous feat. If doctors could work with Watson to help them stay on top of the most current medical information, we would all benefit.

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