Watson goes to medical school — The future of medicine is on a computer

Doctor in front of a computer

Dr Herbert Chase is one guy who believes Watson can help doctors do their job better. Plus he has a respectable beard.

Now that Watson has settled down in its victory over the top human Jeopardy champions, its creators are finally making that transition they said they intended to do–over to medicine. Watson’s new occupation? Medical student.

Except instead of going through a million years of medical school, like a human does, Watson is going to spend just the next two years absorbing more than 6 million medical textbooks and 70 million journal articles. After that, IBM is going to get Watson a job as a clinical decision support system (CDSS), where it will help doctors diagnose diseases and make medical decisions.

The software powering Watson is called DeepQA, and that software is what’s getting repurposed to be a CDSS, and will be sold to medical facilities. We explained a bit about how Watson and DeepQA work in this article. What it boils down to is that DeepQA has a lot of complex algorithms for interpreting language for meaning, rather than simply working with arrays of data like a normal computer. The advantage is that it gives DeepQA the ability to, pretty much literally, read textbooks and learn from them. It doesn’t take a human to say something like Sore Throat + Sniffles = Cold; Watson can figure it out just by reading.

What’s cooler is that, like some medical TV shows, Watson can deal with medical mysteries and form a hypothesis. Here’s a quote from an Associated Press article:

At a recent demonstration for The Associated Press, Watson was gradually given information about a fictional patient with an eye problem. As more clues were unveiled — blurred vision, family history of arthritis, Connecticut residence — Watson’s suggested diagnoses evolved from Uveitis to Behcet’s disease to Lyme disease. It gave the final diagnosis a 73 percent confidence rating.

“You do get eye problems in Lyme disease but it’s not common,” Dr. Herbert Chase said. “You can’t fool Watson.”
Image of the character House, from House MD

Watson's job will be to solve medical mysteries (or at least help). Which is exactly what House does. Downside: Watson's creators didn't program a sense of humor. Yet.

It sounds like a non-deadly version of House, doesn’t it?
Actually, Watson won’t be the first computer on the field. Its main competitor right now is a system called Isabel, another CDSS which you can even get a free trial of if you want to try it out. Basically, you give it symptoms and Isabel gives you a list of diseases. Watson can do that, and can also suggest treatments based on the patient’s circumstances (like avoiding Penicillin if the patient is allergic).
Now imagine if they used speech recognition (which has really taken off recently, thanks to Google). Because Watson understands human language, a doctor could literally talk to Watson. It would be like those Jeopardy matches, except instead of answering some trivia question Watson is saving someone’s life.

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About Nick G

Nick has been a blogger since 2007 and is an English and Japanese major, though his roots are in engineering and the sciences. He tutors high school students in Math and English, and plans on becoming a Teacher. In his spare time Nick plays FPS, RTS and RPG computer games, Dungeons and Dragons (the tabletop version) and arcade dance games like DDR. He also likes reading sci-fi and fantasy novels, writing poetry and running. Nick plays drums for the band Tens and Twenties.
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