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Make That Dr. Watson – IBM's AI Darling Grows Up

The Watson saga continues... With an encyclopedic knowledge-base, and thousands of hours of higher education, AI darling and former Jeopardy champion Watson is ready for a career in medicine.

Watson-creator IBM – in partnership with healthcare companies WellPoint, Inc. and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center – revealed the first set of commercial products based on the unique brand of Watson genius. These custom-built, scaled-down Watson Juniors were programmed to assist medical professionals and insurance carriers, but the backers say there is a larger context which is to enhance the quality of patient care, starting with the field of oncology.

According to American Cancer Society statistics, there are 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed each year in the United States alone. Studies show that one in five patients receives sub-standard care, while it is further estimated that 200,000 Americans die each year as a result of medical mistakes. The growing complexity of medicine along with an explosion in health care data could create a perfect storm for further medical-related mistakes with critical consequences. But when combined with the latest advances in cognitive computing systems, the wealth of data becomes a transformative tool to make medicine better – in schools, in the treatment room and in the back office – at least that's what IBM and other project partners would have you believe.

Under development since 2006, IBM's data-shredding dynamo made its prime-time television debut on Jeopardy in 2011, where the machine handily defeated Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Tech enthusiasts have followed Watson's progress ever since, but they're not the only ones. Various industry interests, from the health care sector to insurance and banking, have also shown a keen interest in this technology. Sure, Watson's brand of intelligence is remarkable in its own right, but for a corporation – IBM in this case – commercialization is the name of the game.

Shortly after the Jeopardy win, IBM revealed plans to leverage Watson's natural language skills and data crunching abilities for the medical field. Since then, Big Blue and partners have invested thousands of hours (and untold dollars) on Watson's residency, teaching the machine to process, analyze and interpret complex clinical information.

Dr. Watson's education has so far comprised of "600,000 pieces of medical evidence, two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the area of oncology research," according to IBM's press statement. The machine can review 1.5 million patient records and offer best practices treatment options faster than it takes most office computers to boot up.

IBM is characterizing the Watson 2.0 machines as "evidence-based decision support systems" that combine deep analytics and natural language processing with clinical and genomic data to support individualized, best-practices medicine.

"These breakthrough capabilities bring forward the first in a series of Watson-based technologies, which exemplifies the value of applying big data and analytics and cognitive computing to tackle the industries most pressing challenges," states Manoj Saxena, IBM General Manager, Watson Solutions.

The commercial product portfolio breaks from the personalized naming convention employed by IBM for the original Watson (named in honor of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson). The new appellations are a little more, well, clinical. The two-product set includes "Interactive Care Insights for Oncology" and "The WellPoint Interactive Care Guide and Interactive Care Reviewer."

The first will help doctors diagnose and treat lung cancer and the second assists insurers with "utilization management," i.e., the process of determining whether a proposed treatment is covered or not.

Initial adopters of the "Insights" technology include the WestMed Medical Group and the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine. Pricing was not disclosed, but customers will be able to purchase the product to run in-house or they can rent it as-a-service via the cloud.

WellPoint has deployed the "Interactive Care" product internally and makes the capability available as a Web portal to other providers. It has already deployed the Interactive Care Reviewer to "a select number" of providers in the Midwest, and is targeting at least 1,600 more sites by the end of the year.

This video below demonstrates the Watson-based "Insights for Oncology" software in action. For those who saw Watson's televised Jeopardy matches, some of this will be very familiar. Watson still assigns confidence levels to its findings, but a lot of functionality has been added that is specific to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

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