IBM supercomputer 'Watson' to provide medical diagnoses

HealthMedical ResearchIBMGarry Kasparov

IBM's Watson computer thrilled "Jeopardy" audiences in February by vanquishing two human champs in a three-day match. It's an impressive resume, and now Watson has landed a plum job.

IBM is partnering with WellPoint, a large health insurance plan provider with around 34 million subscribers, to bring Watson technology to the health care sector, the companies said Monday.

It will be the first commercial application of Watson, which is a computing system that aims to "understand" language as humans naturally speak it. IBM has been working on Watson for more than six years.

The goal is for Watson to help medical professionals diagnose and sort out treatment options for complicated health issues. Think of the system as an electronic Dr. House.

"Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient's medical care -- symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies," Dr. Sam Nussbaum, WellPoint's chief medical officer, said in a prepared statement.

"Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment," he added.

WellPoint plans to begin deploying Watson technology in small clinical pilot tests in early 2012.

0:00 / 1:56 IBM's post-Jeopardy Watson plans

Speed and natural language: Watson can sift through 200 million pages of data and provide a response in less than three seconds. But perhaps even more impressive than Watson's speed is its ability to process natural language, the way that humans speak it.

That's no easy feat for a computer. Human language is full of subtleties, irony and words with multiple meanings.

Take the "Jeopardy" example. Watson studies the questions by considering many factors, ranging from straightforward keyword matching to more complex challenges like homonyms (the bark of a tree is not the same as a dog's bark) and paraphrasing ("Big Blue" is the same thing as "IBM").

Watson is able to do this quickly thanks to software that runs on 10 refrigerator-sized racks of IBM Power7 systems. The machine is a grandkid to Deep Blue, the chess-playing IBM supercomputer that trounced world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

IBM said early on that health care is a field where it anticipated commercialization opportunities for Watson. Other markets IBM is eying include online self-service help desks, tourist information centers and customer hotlines.

Watson's "Jeopardy" face-off against champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, which first aired February 14-16, will be re-broadcast starting on Monday. 

(Julianne Pepitone @CNNMoneyTech)

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