That's Dr. Watson, to you
May 23rd, 2011
04:00 PM ET

That's Dr. Watson, to you

Instead of man versus machine (like the Jeopardy showdown), the makers of Watson, the supercomputer, are toying with how machine can help man - at the hospital.

After defeating his human rivals champions Ken Jennings and  Brad Rutter on Jeopardy earlier this year , Watson, the trivia-question answering supercomputer, is on a new task.

Watson, which has been in development for years, has the processing power of 2,800 "powerful computers," as a major advancement in machines' efforts to understand human language.   It juggles dozens of lines of reasoning at once and tries to arrive at a smart answer.

Medical staff at Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are seeing if Watson could interact with health workers to help with the diagnosis and treatment of patients.  

Doctors and nurses have to make life-altering decisions based on facts and huge volumes of information.  Watson theoretically could provide assistance by unlocking facts and data that the human brain cannot tap immediately.

Its ability to answer questions, process language could provide health care workers with timely information during critical moments, according to a press release from IBM and Nuance Communications.  Watson can refer to reference materials, previous cases, and the latest studies in journals and medical literature. Using its wealth of information, Watson could help the health care workers determine the most likely diagnosis and treatment options.

In the release,  Dr. Herbert Chase, professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons said: “Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient. We also believe that Watson also has the ability to help doctors provide personalized treatment options that are tailored to an individual patient's needs.”

A doctor’s office version of Watson could be commercially available within two years, according to the companies.

Would you want your doctors to consult Watson for your diagnosis or treatment?  Sound off below.

soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. Ken

    As long as the computer doesn't override the doctor, sounds good.

    May 23, 2011 at 17:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tony

      I agree, so long as the doctor is making the decisions I don't care what tools he uses.

      May 23, 2011 at 18:01 | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      I imagine the scenario would be that Watson would give the medical team a list of diagnoses in descending order of probability, then the treating physician would choose the one that seems most likely.

      May 24, 2011 at 08:57 | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      But even more important: The computer should be allowed to override the insurance companies :-).

      May 24, 2011 at 10:01 | Report abuse |
    • Geeshgirl

      Just don't hand Watson that scalpel...

      May 24, 2011 at 11:29 | Report abuse |
    • ChuckFromAl

      I agree with Ken, as long as a human doctor has the final word I say it's a great idea' A computer with access to endless amounts of medical knowledge could recommend treatments a doctor is not yet aware of and no matter what should come up with treatment options a whole lot faster.

      May 24, 2011 at 14:30 | Report abuse |
    • George

      I don't mind, as long as they don't name the computer HAL9000 or Colossus.

      May 24, 2011 at 23:44 | Report abuse |
    • George

      I agree with Mark re: computers being able to quickly sort out diagnoses and giving the doctor a list of viable choices. I also think the computer could help prevent medication conflicts and duplication by tracking what the patient is already receiving. I think anything we can come up with to help minimize human error, while still maintaining ultimate human control, is a good thing.

      May 24, 2011 at 23:49 | Report abuse |
  2. El Kababa

    I suspect that the computer will be right more often than the doctor.

    May 23, 2011 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Joe PhD

    Important controls will need to be in place to assure that Watson gets all the information it needs.

    May 23, 2011 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. InSHAMity

    ...Somehow I see something like this cropping up on House...just saying...

    May 23, 2011 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Ophal Current

    Of course this will be used by you and me, not by some doctor. The idea of an MD having power over our lives will appear medieval in a few years.

    May 23, 2011 at 19:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Scientist

      You try doing emergency cardiac bypass while having a heart attack

      May 24, 2011 at 11:43 | Report abuse |
  6. phil

    I guess it all comes down to how you query the system. Incorrect entry could yield no results or provide you with an answer like written by Isaac Asimov, "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER".

    May 23, 2011 at 19:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Hubris PhD

    I have worked with doctors most of my life and I would trust a computer above a doctor (even the sober, non-addicted ones)!

    May 23, 2011 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. OKALH

    I would be happy to see the bulk of Drs. I've seen in recent years retire in favor of using Watson! Over paid and poorly trained particularly in communicating with patients. Sign me up as soon as available....... Did I mention my health care, not my choice, comes from Kaiser?

    May 23, 2011 at 21:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mike

      Oklah...do you know how many patients they have to see or cost of malpractice insurance or college bills....its different when you start flipping burgers at 18

      May 23, 2011 at 23:36 | Report abuse |
  9. BillyDKidd

    Watson would take a look at my medical chart and determine that I am already dead and have been dead for forty years. Now what?

    May 23, 2011 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Mike

    My wife works as a nocturnalist (night-time hospitalist) knowing how tired she gets after her 14 hr shift with 1-18 new admissions, 70 + cross covers and ...I would trust a computer more

    May 23, 2011 at 23:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • momo

      Wow, bet you will be sleeping on the couch tonight

      May 24, 2011 at 00:24 | Report abuse |
  11. dan

    I wonder who will be the first human Watson will kill. Did you watch Jeopardy?

    May 24, 2011 at 00:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LeeVA

      And yet Watson beat the humans. Explains why doctors manage to kill patients while thinking they are doing the right thing.

      May 24, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
  12. unretired05

    Doctors practice medicine maybe Watson would get it right instead of just making guesses.

    May 24, 2011 at 01:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Dave

    I am a med student at the Univ. of Maryland and I cannot wait to use such amazing technology. Is it likely to fully replace doctors in the future? No, but it will certainly be an invaluable tool.

    May 24, 2011 at 02:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Chest Pain for $500

    Seems backwards to me. Someone still needs to do triage and exam, then order the tests so Watson can deduce the diagnosis. Good luck with that... "What is a myocardial infarction, Alex?"

    May 24, 2011 at 02:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Stephen

    i'd trust a machine before i trust a doctor...

    while yes i'd still want a skilled professional to advise on the more human matters, they would be secondary to the machine and it's vast databases.

    like a mechanic or auto parts clerk guessing at a problem based on symptoms Vs. checking the OBD.

    May 24, 2011 at 04:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. jdoe

    My own experience is that most medical professionals have an aversion to computers and regard them as a necessary evil. Anything that make their interaction with computers more human-like would be a tremendous advance.

    May 24, 2011 at 05:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Charles Swatzell

    I agree ,that with volumes and volumes of medical proceeders,and with the advancement of new technical proceeders arising daily,not to mention all the new drugs that have advanced recently(and some of the older ones we tend to forget),it would be almost impossible for a doctor,or anyone for that matter to sift through this vast array of information,determine which of it is prudent to the patient that is lying on a stretcher in front of you and is dying unless someone or something can sift through all of this in the blink of an eye and come up with a likely list of alternatives so that our doctors can choose or work off this list of ideas as a tool!

    May 24, 2011 at 06:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. ArtificialIntelligenceExpert

    Artificial Intelligence researchers at Stanford University developed a diagnostic system, MYCIN, in the early 1970s, and through subsequent development showed that it, "on its own," could be more accurate than most trained experts in certain realms, particularly in diagnosing infectious diseases. Such a systems have not been used directly because 1) the American legal system cannot resolve the problem of who is liable in the case of a mis-diagnosis, 2) patients are reluctant to trust computer systems (a curious fact, given our reliance on "unaided" computer systems such as air traffic control) and 3) many–but not all–doctors are reluctant to cede diagnostic authority to a computer system. Watson will be used as an "aid" to doctors, so culpability and responsibility lies with the doctor–thereby solving these problems. My humble prediction is that automated systems, Watson's descendants, will be used more and more as gate keepers and for preliminary diagnoses, much like automated telephone or web-based travel assistance and airline ticket systems, slowly taking on ever more complicated roles as they learn from vast patient interactions and can store the latest medical research data.

    May 24, 2011 at 06:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Paulie

    I'm so glad this system runs Linux...imagine the doctor coming into the room: "I'm sorry but the super computer we installed just blue screened....thats a BAD sign..."

    May 24, 2011 at 07:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Watson is going to solve the healthcare problem!!

    ATM's were going to save "us" time and fees, automated phone systems, automated assembly, Does no one else see this as the final incorporation of the medical system? In 5 or 10 years, WATSON IS GOING TO BE THE DOCTOR!!! Because he doesn't draw that pesky salary. God save us all.. I build smart grid and video surveillance networks for a living, (Skynets eyes and power supply) Did no one else out there actually "watch" the Terminator, or BSG? Any smart AI, with enough processing power and abilities is going to decide we're the biggest threat to itself and the planet, faster than you can type a period.

    May 24, 2011 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sartre

      "God save us al!"

      IF you actually believe in a GOD then you are already too delusional to even access the health care system, much less get any benefit from it... [Just pray, and you will be 100% healthy.]

      May 24, 2011 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
    • kls817

      Don't worry. Watson is not intelligent; it's just a word match machine. The idiot "futurists" promise aritificial intelligence soon, as they have been doing for decades. But no significant progress has been made. As a computer programmer and a mensan, I can tell you that artificial intelligence is nowhere in sight.

      May 24, 2011 at 14:08 | Report abuse |
    • malibu

      kls817: But I see artificial intelligence right there in your post!

      May 24, 2011 at 16:22 | Report abuse |
  21. Roguescot

    Each moment that passes by another insight into the human body is gleaned, a new proceedure found, a better more effective way to act on a life threatening situation... Doctors spend hours upon hours seeing patients and literally do not have the time to scour every bit of information that comes to light each day. The human input will still be the deciding factor but to have ALL of the information available at their fingertips will help with more accurate diagnosis and treatments. Don't worry, computers won't take over just yet.

    May 24, 2011 at 08:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Pete

    No doubt lots of doctors will still believe the problem is what they think it is. Many will probably enter the symptoms into the computer with an idea in their head already of what the problem is, then go through the list of what Watson says it might be, checking them off in his (the doctor's) head, thinking "No, no, no, ..." until he/she sees what he/she was thinking, and then saying "yep, I knew it" as if the computer were only there to stroke the doctor's ego. This, to me, seems much more likely to happen than a human seeing something unexpected in the output and saying "Gee, I never thought of that, thanks Watson for being so much better than dumb 'ol me! We'll do what you said!"

    May 24, 2011 at 09:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Claude L

      As with Jeopardy, the suggestions that Watson will present will be in order of probability. With each suggestion will be the proof that Watson used to derive that suggestion and probably authenticated previous decisions, if they exist. The doctor would then make his decision based on that information.

      June 2, 2011 at 16:33 | Report abuse |
  23. Sartre


    My Doctor, PCP, is so complacent, so conservative, so religious that he thinks computers are evil... health care people realy do need all the help they can get...

    May 24, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Chris

    Eh, who needs a fancy diagnostic tool like that when you can just be like Dr. House, and guess amyloidosis for everything?

    May 24, 2011 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. spain4972

    DR.House is screwed LOL

    May 24, 2011 at 13:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. GaryX72

    Will Watson carry malpractice insurance?

    May 24, 2011 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. kls817

    Watson is a joke. It only won on Jeopardy because it was fast. But many of its answers were really stupid (like "What do grasshoppers eat?" Watson: "Kosher"). It has no commons sense. A doctor would be slower, but much more intelligent.

    May 24, 2011 at 14:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dresdie

      I'm not a doctor and cannot comment on physiology and medicine but like many things in science, "common sense" is really based on a set mathematical formulas and laws of physics. The body is much like this and most of the time, the computer is not going to be answering questions like "what do grasshoppers eat". Rather, they will be answering questions for symptoms with consideration of symptoms, patients' medical history, genetic makeup, etc.

      May 25, 2011 at 01:41 | Report abuse |
  28. PookD

    Scientific knowledge is exploding at such a rapid pace the human brain cannot keep up – augmenting our brains with machine-based intelligence seems necessary to take advantage of the entire body of information and experience available.

    May 24, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. cyberCMDR

    My wife has some autoimmune issues, and unfortunately she has learned more about these diseases than most of the rheumatologists out there. Many don't keep up with the research, and default to what they learned in medical school (which could be decades ago). Given how fast things are changing in our understanding of the immune system, neurology, etc., it will take having a system like Watson for doctors to keep up. Humans often are either incapable of keeping up, or unwilling to make the effort.

    May 24, 2011 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. buddy

    I've been in severe, constant internal pain for years. I'd take a diagnosis from a witch doctor in the Falkland Islands if it led toward an effective treatment.

    Any progress in medicine is good progress as far as I'm concerned.

    May 24, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. PotentialProblem

    While I favor having a computer aided diagnosis available to doctors given the vast amount of information instantaneously available, doctors will feel obligated to follow the diagnosis offered by the computer. I say this because the moment a doctor feels that a patient suffers from something other than what the computer says and is wrong and the patient suffers further injury from that misdiagnosis, he will have a pretty hard time defending against a malpractice action when the correct diagnosis and treatment were staring him/her in the face. That's my perspective as an attorney at least, for what it's worth.

    May 24, 2011 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PotentialProblem

      ... Doctors would need their patients to sign a consent and waiver to stray from the computer's diagnosis. something that has certain requirements to be valid, and something that may not be available in an emergency situation.

      May 24, 2011 at 16:05 | Report abuse |
    • LeeVA

      No reasonable doctor would simply accept the diagnosis. He would do the confirmation testing that Watson would also provide as part of its programming. Then, if the tests confirm the diagnosis, then the doctor can move on the treatment. More likely is that Watson would come up with a handle of possible diagnoses, and then provide the doctor with a testing strategy in order for the doctor to do the differential diagnosis and narrow down to one root cause.

      May 24, 2011 at 17:31 | Report abuse |
  32. Brian

    Brings new meaning to the BLUE SCEEN OF DEATH!!

    May 24, 2011 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. LeeVA

    The key here is that Watson would do the brainstorming and the doctor would look over the results. This would free up a lot of time and put the doctor in the position of reasoning out the possibilities presented by Watson in order to arrive at a diagnosis. More likely is that the doctor would be left with two to five diagnoses and would then have to set up a plan for working them down to one root cause.

    May 24, 2011 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. PMD

    Of course, there's always the issue of "garbage in, garbage out." Unless Watson is able to ask the same question 20 different ways (like human physicians often have to in order to get a meaningful answer from a patient), it is doomed to fail. Oh, and . . . how does Watson actually do an exam?

    May 24, 2011 at 17:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Bob The Builder

    I humped a computer once. Computers don't like fluids....

    May 24, 2011 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Brian

    Half of you seem to think this is some sort of AI where as its not. It might have to a degree a few lines of code that help interact with the end user but nothing near a smart AI. Its nothing more than a great big records database intelligently constructed.

    If IBM was smart they would take a lot of data from literally tens of millions of refrences and compile a massive data archive on this thing which could make them a huge profit if they did something, like a web search engine for the average person to lookup things. This would go beyond the medical practice.

    May 25, 2011 at 03:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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