Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Done With Silly Game Shows, IBM's Watson Finds a Job

Hot on the heels of last night’s big victory on the TV game show “Jeopardy” over two human champions, the most famous computer in the world today, or at least one just like it, appears to have found a respectable job.

Nuance Communications, a software company best known for its Dragon Naturally Speaking line of speech-recognition software, today announced a research agreement with IBM to explore ways to use the Watson system and its deep analytics technology in the health care industry.

The agreement calls for the companies to combine IBM’s Deep Question Answering, Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning capabilities with Nuance’s speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding, which is basically speech recognition tuned to the unique needs of doctors and other health care pros. They expect products resulting from the research to hit the market within two years. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are also getting involved.

The hope is that Watson’s ability to analyze the meaning and context of spoken language and quickly sort through the information in it to find precise answers can help humans arrive at decisions faster, and arrive at answers they might not have otherwise thought of. A doctor mulling a patient’s diagnosis could use Watson to quickly check medical literature and help evaluate a decision.

Nuance has a huge health care segment, accounting for a little less than half its sales. The division includes Dragon Medical–desktop software for doctors–and eScription, which docs use to phone in comments that are converted to text that’s entered into medical records. It’s also been building voice-recognition apps for Apple’s iPhone, both for consumers and for doctors. IBM and Nuance will jointly invest in the research project, and IBM has licensed access to the Watson technology to Nuance.

Nuance itself is an interesting company. Spun out of Xerox in 1999, it started out in the scanning and text-recognition software business, and then in 2001 scooped up the assets of the bankrupt Belgian outfit Lernout and Hauspie using a combination of debt and cash raised in a private placement from the state of Wisconsin’s investment board. It turned out that speech recognition’s time had come, and as sales of Dragon improved, it proceeded to roll up scores of other companies in the speech- and text-recognition game, including one founded by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Sales were north of a $1 billion for the first time in the year ended September 2010, and its shares have improved considerably over the last year, though given its size, the stock often moves on takeover rumors.

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