Remember IBM’s Watson? He’s Still Here.

The celeb computer is branching out from game shows to medical and financial analysis


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To put Watson’s capabilities in perspective, imagine a person who is able to absorb every possible piece of data available on a subject, along with anything tangentially related, then sort through it, make logical connections among mounds of disparate sources—and then make a recommendation based on all of it—in a matter of seconds. 

Now, on top of all that, add a third skill—the ability to learn. Watson is actually getting smarter. “Watson is learning at an accelerated pace on what it’s been taught to date,” says Gold. “We’re very excited about how far and how fast Watson has come.”

The potential commercial applications for Watson are huge. One of IBM’s first Watson collaborations has been with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City. The need was clear—medical information doubles in volume every five years. The National Center for Biotechnical Information estimates that it would take an oncologist roughly 160 hours a week to remain current with medical literature, research, guidelines, and best practices. 

Since 2012, MSKCC and IBM have been collaborating on a new Watson-based decision support system for cancer research and treatment. They began with lung cancer and are progressing to breast and prostate cancers. Watson has been fed reams of data that unites clinical expertise, molecular and genomic data, and a repository of 25,000 case histories. The idea is that an oncologist can treat an individual patient by having Watson crunch all the data and then identify the key disease patterns that most closely approximate that person’s case. 

A demo co-created by IBM and Sloan-Kettering showcases how it would work: Mrs. Yamodo (a fictional patient), 37, comes to her doctor because she has a persistent dry cough and labored breathing. Her doctor orders a chest X-ray, which reveals a suspicious mass on her lungs. A subsequent CT scan and biopsy confirms the likelihood of cancer, and Mrs. Yamodo is referred to an oncologist.

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