Jeopardy! Lays the Groundwork for a Dr. Watson

February 17, 2011
Sean Johnson

Beating humans is elementary for Jeopardy's super computer contestant Watson, but what does it mean for medicine?

Whether or not you are an avid Jeopardy! fan or not, you’ve likely heard about the man vs. computer battle that aired on television this week. The battle consisted of Jeopardy’s top winners of all time, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, going up against a super computer built by IBM. The obvious challenge for a computer is processing the right response in the allotted amount of time given and considering the type of wordplay that Jeopardy! clues often incorporate.

The super computer, Watson, was named after IBM’s founder Thomas J. Watson, and boasts a 3,000 computer-processor “brain.” Seven years in the making, the computer is able to run hundreds of simultaneous algorithmic calculations, making it more equipped than any computer before it to detect complicated speech patterns and then check those against a vast database of knowledge. Even still, the computer was not perfect; in fact, on day one of the three-day challenge, it merely tied one of the carbon-based opponents after missing on the Final Jeopardy question. And several other times throughout the competition Watson guessed incorrectly. However, in the end, Watson thoroughly defeated Jennings and Rutter; in fact, even if both human players added their scores together, Watson would have still won convincingly. In doing so, Watson secured the $1,000,000 cash prize for first place, which IBM has already said would go to charity if the computer won.

So, aside from building the ultimate trivia machine to embarrass humans on game shows, what exactly does the Watson experiment mean for humanity? That’s exactly what Dr. Eliot Siegel, professor and vice chairman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's department of diagnostic radiology, and a team of IBM engineers are trying to figure out.

The goal now is to figure out how to harness the sheer computing power and vast wealth of knowledge that a computer like Watson can provide to help physicians and medical specialists improve their quality of care. In a recent interview with Computerworld, Dr. Siegel spoke about the possibilities. "It offers the potential to usher in a whole new generation of medicine. If all Dr. Watson did was allow me to organize electronic medical records and bring to my attention what's most important and summarize it, that would be incredibly valuable to me,” said Siegel.

One example of how a “Dr. Watson” might be able to assist health care professionals is when deciding what type of treatment to use on a patient. A computer like that would be able to quickly generate data on how drugs have worked on patients with similar diagnoses and backgrounds in the past. Instead of relying on one physician’s knowledge and experience, a computer could theoretically house the knowledge of countless physicians and provide a wealth of data almost instantaneously. Not to mention that, if implemented in a successful manner, a Dr. Watson could potentially save the health care system a significant amount of money.

What started out as a fun artificial intelligence experiment on one of America’s most popular game shows could very well lead to some revolutionary advances in medical quality of care.

What kind of impact do you see a Dr. Watson making on health care? Share your thoughts!

Around the Web

IBM's Watson could usher in new era of medicine [Computerworld]

After Winning Jeopardy, What's Next for IBM's Watson? Healthcare [Read, Write, Web]

Is Your Job an Endangered Species? [WSJ]

Watson in the examining room? [Baltimore Sun]

Fresh off 'Jeopardy!' victory, IBM Watson lands health care job [NetworkWorld]

My Puny Human Brain by Ken Jennings [Slate]