It’s Elementary

We know Watson, the supercomputer, for its vast fund of knowledge and thinking prowess when machine bested man, defeating the all-time Jeopardy champ for games won, Ken Jennings (74), and Brad Rutter, Jeopardy’s highest money winner ($3,470,102), and winning against Jennings in a head-to-head Tournament of Champions. Now, Watson is flexing her considerable problem-solving muscle in medicine, and, more specifically, in clinical decision support. Indeed, the British edition of the online magazine Wired reports that “IBM’s Watson is better at diagnosing cancer than human doctors.” 

In September 2011, IBM and Wellpoint announced an agreement to create the first commercial applications of the IBM Watson technology to improve patient care. Watson has been a diligent medical student for the past two years, with a voracious  — perhaps insatiable  — appetite for both structured and unstructured data, including human language.

Put simply, Watson learns.

Watson’s skills, powered by human creators and teachers, include natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation and reasoning, and machine learning that result in its abilities to generate hypotheses and to engage in massive evidence gathering, analysis, and scoring.

The IBM Wellpoint collaboration and other collaborative efforts with leading health care institutions, including Memorial Sloan Kettering and MD Anderson, will be transform health care. I don’t believe that Watson and other innovations that make use of artificial intelligence and Big Data will replace human clinicians. Rather, we will have new tools that will be as profound as the introduction of antisepsis in surgery, radiologic imaging, the discovery of antibiotics and antivirals, and the mapping of the human genome.

Steven R. Peskin, MD, MBA, FACP, is associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and is governor of the American College of Physicians, New Jersey South.