Healthcare Technology Featured Article

August 14, 2018

How IBM Watson Is Revolutionizing Cancer Research

Technology is transforming at a faster pace than ever, leading to rapid innovations that are proving beneficial. What was once thought to be impossible has now become a question of “what’s stopping us?” You may not realize it, but you are interacting with artificial intelligence (AI) every single day. Whether you are given an estimated time of arrival from your Uber app or depositing a paycheck into your bank account from your mobile device, you have been given the capability of performing tasks and processing information at breakneck speed.

What has become an even more fascinating use of AI is how it is applied to the healthcare field. Don’t worry, human-looking robots aren’t going to be operating on you (hopefully), but artificial intelligence may help doctors with your diagnosis and treatment plan if you do become ill. Supercomputers, including IBM Watson, are starting to become an integral part of medical research and are revolutionizing how healthcare is approached.

What is IBM Watson
IBM Watson is a supercomputer built by members of International Business Machines. It combines AI and analytics to answer sophisticated and technically driven questions. Watson uses cognitive computing at an extremely fast rate (check out its specs here) and understands speech, vision, language, and data. By understanding speech, Watson can convert what it hears into text and highlight important points such as names of people and certain topics pertaining to them. Watson understands semantics and the value derived from the content we are sharing with other humans.

A very crucial part of Watson’s capabilities is that it uses visual recognition and can process the content of images. Watson can tag these images and recognize faces, find similar images, and even approximate information like age and gender from them. Watson analyzes data sets to create hypotheses, allowing it to infer and predict the best approach to a situation, whether it be diagnosing a patient or providing advice about a retirement portfolio.

How Is Watson Furthering Cancer Research?
What was initially intended to win a game of Jeopardy! is now being used to help medical professionals make informed decisions. Take cancer, for example. Its ability to learn the medical language related to cancer, including types, symptoms, and treatments, and discern it from other types of diseases is something that could speed up the process for an undiagnosed patient. Watson also understands certain treatment options and can infer how they will affect people based on their current and previous health, age, and gender. By evaluating thousands of pages of medical literature and with the guidance of human experts, Watson creates a “corpus of knowledge” to infer the best route to correctly diagnose someone with a specific cancer and the next steps to take after being diagnosed.

Furthermore, Watson has partnered with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and other clinics to create an oncology computing system aimed at advancing the progress of cancer research. The technology is still in its infancy, even though it was expected to advance rapidly. However, Watson gets smarter over time and learns from its mistakes.

Watson is currently trained in 13 cancer types, one of those being breast cancer, and will hopefully add more diseases to its index very soon. Diagnosing cancers earlier could be groundbreaking, especially for those with noticeable late-stage symptoms, including mesothelioma and liver cancer. This technology could increase the life expectancy of patients and be a lifesaving resource for those who are detected early.

What The Future Holds
Watson’s oncology computing system certainly isn’t ready to be implemented for wide scale use in hospitals, but it is making strides toward understanding medicine and cancer. People often expect technology to work rapidly, and while Watson is learning, it will take time for it to provide unique insight about a variety of different diseases. Small wins are what’s going to keep it progressing, and hopefully in the near future Watson will become a household name in the medical field.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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