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IBM’s Watson Supercomputer Coming to Lerner College of Medicine

IBM’s Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy in 2011, will be going to school at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. Unlike its time on national television, though, this time, Watson will be working with a purpose. In three years, the programmers, IBM, and the doctors at the Cleveland Clinic hope to have a computer that will be able to not only beat humans at Jeopardy, but help diagnose patients and save lives around the world.

While Watson itself will not physically be at the Cleveland Clinic, doctors and students will be able to interact with the computer over the Internet as they teach the computer about medicine, preparing it to be able to take the United States Medical Licensing Exam.

But how can a computer that won at Jeopardy be even similar to a doctor? While it may seem strange at first, the process of logic that Watson used in order to be successful at Jeopardy actually gives it many of the thinking skills used by doctors today.

“What Jeopardy proved is that Watson could respond to a natural language question and that it could have well-placed confidence in its answers,” said Neil Mehta, M.D., Director of Education Technology at Lerner. These are just like the skills that physicians use when trying to diagnose a patient, according to Mehta, who says, “We look into our domain of experience to find the answer…[then] we make our diagnostic decision based on our level of certainty.”

Watson will be spending its time at the Cleveland Clinic learning from the students and the doctors that work there.

According to Dr. Mehta, “IBM has already fed a large amount of information and confidence into Watson.” This data, though, is not linked together. It will be the Clinic’s job to help Watson learn how to use that data. By asking Watson questions, the students and doctors will be able to see Watson’s conclusions and the logic that is used to make them. Watson can then learn from corrections that doctors make to provide more accurate answers in the future, just like a real person.

The Cleveland Clinic wants big things from their time with Watson. Dr. Mehta hopes that “at the end of three years, we can do a safe trial with real patients in a controlled environment.” It is an ambitious and noble goal.

A computer like Watson could be a huge asset to the medical industry, which is becoming rapidly overwhelmed by the huge amount of medical knowledge that is available.

“Every day, physicians and scientists around the world add more and more information to what I think of as an ever-expanding, global medical library,” said C. Martin Harris, M.D., Chief Information Officer of Cleveland Clinic. There is more information than a single person can possibly take in, but doctors need to be able to use all of it to give their patients the best possible care. This is where Watson steps in.

With its ability to search through a huge array of knowledge and make confident diagnosis based on that could make Watson an invaluable aid to medicine. It could help many professionals in the industry diagnose patients that they would not otherwise be able to.

“You could see a nurse on call, using this for many different cases. They could use [Watson] to make sure they don’t miss anything urgent,” said Dr. Mehta. With this capability available, Watson would be able to help lift much of the burden already placed on an overworked and understaffed medical system in this country.

Dr. Mehta is quick to point out, though, that Watson will not be replacing human doctors anytime soon. “We use computers so much in our lives. We trust them, maybe a little too much, and we don’t want to do that when we are working with patients.”

Regarding Watson’s future, Dr. Mehta stated that “regardless of whether [Watson] is the answer, it will be a stepping stone to what we need.” It really seems that way. Watson, and technology like it, has huge potential for improving health care. Computers like Watson could well be the start of a revolution in medicine around the world.

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