Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

IBM Computer Watson Is Now a Big-Shot Doctor, and You Still Aren’t

You might be forgiven for feeling a twinge of jealousy if you’ve been following the trajectory of Watson, the IBM computer. Jealousy, however, is human.

Just look at the scorecard: First, Watson schools humanity at the TV game show “Jeopardy.” Granted, that was a publicity stunt, but a fun and interesting one, about which at least one really smart person decided to write a book. (See my coverage of Watson’s three-day campaign of human domination on “Jeopardy” from last year: Day one | Day two | Day three.)

And what does it do for an encore? It plays “Jeopardy” with a U.S. senator and, well, you know, sorta lets him win. Then it gets a real job, working for health-insurance giant WellPoint.

So, if hearing from Watson is beginning to feel a little like that annual Christmas card from the annoying family whose kids are a little too highly accomplished, you can add this to the pile: Watson is now a doctor, too. Well, he’s been to medical school, at least, and even has a specialty: Oncology. And now he has a job at a very high-profile cancer-treatment center: New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Attentive AllThingsD readers will remember January’s extensive Seven Questions session with Manoj Saxena about going to medical school. And while Watson isn’t really a doctor — more like an extremely well-read physician’s assistant — it sure is interesting to learn what it can do: Watson can consult both the very latest medical literature and look back through the history of previous cancer cases to help doctors figure out the best way to treat a particular cancer.

We’re still pretty far away from computers actually making medical decisions. Watson isn’t that good, so there will always be a human doctor as a backstop to its suggestions of possible treatment options. But as you’ll hear Dr. Larry Norton say in the IBM video below, computers like Watson are helping us shift away from an era in which doctors make decisions based on their own experience and opinions, to one where they can readily consult the evidence and determine with a firm “yes” or “no” if something is likely to work. No one likes to think about cancer, but if you or someone you care about gets it, it’s an encouraging thought.

And yes, while IBM keeps banging the publicity drum for Watson, it looks like the machine is going to be doing its part for IBM’s bottom line, too. Big Blue has a target of $16 billion in revenue derived from its data-analytics business by 2015. Bloomberg News quotes Ed Maguire, an analyst with CLSA in New York, as estimating that Watson could bring in about $2.5 billion in sales and contribute as much as 52 cents in per-share earnings by that time. Yeah, I’m kinda jealous of Watson, too.


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