Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

IBM’s Game Show Winning Watson Computer Goes to Work Treating Cancer

ibmjeopardydocRemember Watson? That’s right, the IBM-made supercomputer that whipped the human race at the game show “Jeopardy,” and then for an encore went to medical school and embarrassed us all by becoming a sort-of big shot doctor? Yeah, that Watson.

Remember, too, how this time last year it was starting to specialize in the treatment of cancer, absorbing all the medical literature on the subject? Well, it’s done training and is now ready to go to work.

Yesterday as the result of work done by the health insurance provider Wellpoint and Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, IBM announced that the first commercial versions of Watson are ready for sale.

During what I’ll loosely call its training period, Watson has to date “read” some 600,000 documents of medical evidence, two million pages of specialty medical journals and clinical trials focusing on oncology or the treatment of cancer. The point of all this is to be able to answer complicated questions, based on evidence, about the treatments of cancer.

The point of all this, as I learned from IBM’s Manoj Saxena, is to create some kind of constant way for doctors to consult a deep trove of medical knowledge as they go through the complexities of treating their patients. It’s getting especially more difficult to keep up with the constantly evolving new cancer treatments, especially those based on genetic treatments.

In less than a year, Memorial Sloan-Kettering has immersed Watson in the complexities of cancer and the explosion of genetic research that has set the stage for changing care practices for many cancer patients with highly specialized treatments based on their personal genetic tumor type. (Saxenja and I talked about this at length last year.

Watson doesn’t replace a doctor at any point, but rather provides for the doctor a deeply cross-referenced series of answers based on confidence. As was the case during the “Jeopardy” game show, Watson selects the answers to its questions based on what it feels is most likely to be correct based on the information it has available.

But this confidence issue caught Watson in the behind during the game show, and at a critical moment that made some people shake their heads. Having correctly answered 29 of 32 “Jeopardy” clues correctly, including two Daily Doubles, Watson completely blew Final Jeopardy.

Asked to name a U.S. city whose two largest airports were named for a World War II hero and a World War II battle, Watson answered “Toronto?????” — the question marks indicating a low level of confidence in the answer. In that scenario, the rules of the game dictated that Watson had to answer something. In the end it’s wager was low and it didn’t lose enough to lose the game. But it’s an indication of the occasional moment when Watson isn’t entirely sure, and when at those points only a human doctor can really make a call.

The point of the product — it’s called “Interactive Care Insights for Oncology” — Saxena told me is to “assist medical professionals and researchers identify different treatment options for patients battling cancer, and starting with lung cancer.”

Also Watson has not only gotten smarter, it has gotten smaller and faster. The machine that once took up a large room can now run on a single IBM Power 750 server.

The other product is the WellPoint Interactive Care Guide and Interactive Care Reviewer, which does things that aren’t quite as interesting as helping doctors treat cancer, but they’re important. It uses its cognitive computing capabilities that speed up the process of getting treatments approved by insurance carriers, which is always a frustratingly slow process. Wellpoint, which will be re-selling the system to its partners, expects it to be in use by 1,600 health care providers by the end of this year.


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