Healthcare Technology Featured Article

February 22, 2013

Can IBM's Watson Supercomputer Cure Cancer?

Well, we already know IBM’s Watson supercomputer can beat human opponents in game shows. But what else can it do? It may be able to help cure sick patients, for starters.

Watson, of course is IBM’s artificial intelligence computer capable of answering questions posed in natural language. It was developed in IBM's DeepQA project and named after IBM's first president, Thomas J. Watson.

The machine was specifically developed to answer questions to compete on the popular game show, Jeopardy!

In 2011, Watson competed on Jeopardy! against former winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, and trounced both of them, taking “home” the first prize of $1 million.

Two years later, IBM is putting Watson to use in the medical field. In early February, IBM announced that it had entered into a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering and WellPoint to bring Watson’s expertise to the medical field. A scaled down version of the computer (for portability purposes), available for either rent or purchase, will help physicians run variables and hear suggestions on possible treatments based on giant blocks of medical data.

Ultimately, it may not be a human who cures cancers or AIDS or unlocks the mysteries of the human brain. It could be a supercomputer. While each clinician or researcher approaches science with his or her own data, it’s an onerous task to collect and interpret all other relevant data and use it for advancements.

This isn’t a problem for a supercomputer: Watson will have access to all of the information out there, and can use this to offer doctors a series of diagnoses and treatment options, according to a recent Business Insider article.

The prospect is particularly compelling for cancer. Because the disease has so many factors – location and type of cancer as well as stage, patient history, age, ethnic group, previous and existing treatments and general health – and there is so much research already existing (not to mention new information all the time), it’s practically impossible for a human researchers – or even a team – to assimilate all necessary and up-to-date information to find best treatment practices.

But for a computer who can beat the best-ever human Jeopardy! players without breaking a sweat…that’s a different prospect entirely.

Edited by Braden Becker

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