01 Nov IBM supercomputer to cure cancer
Last year, an episode of Jeopardy! introduced the world to Watson, an IBM supercomputer that beat many of the game show's returning champions. The tool is neither frivolous nor trivial, however, with computing power great enough to handle the most difficult queries, voice recognition capability and a rudimentary ability to learn.
With such great power, the computer has been requested by several agencies, yet its placement has remained minute due to the expense and maintenance challenges such an infrastructure can impose. Some fields with more extensive funding and available expertise lend themselves strongly toward the use of this device, and IBM hopes that healthcare providers and researchers will recognize this potential.
Computing at workThe Watson supercomputer is now moving away from its television career to join New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Watson's current capacity allows it to process intricate biomolecular structures faster than any other computer today, according to Informationweek. Thanks to its unique learning function, Watson can sort through billions of internal and online files to extract relevant information and compile pertinent results.
Currently, the source stated that Watson is also assisting with the treatment of patients. The computer analyzes a patient's condition based on physician input, makes a diagnosis and offers a care plan that can either be implemented or used in tandem to a doctor's recommended course of action. These treatments all come with confidence ratings – assessments the computer has made as to how effective each course of action will be in stopping negative progression – meaning more accurate care for each case.
Watson's job at the cancer center will require possibly years of research for the computer to handle, but its primary focus for now will be lung cancer, according to Informationweek.
Sloan-Kettering is not the only institution making use of this technology. The BBC wrote that the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine has also procured a Watson device, using it actively to train physicians and treat current patients. Since this is a functioning practice, the computer can also use its learning capabilities in its direct environment, and not just digitized sources.
"Being able to work with the faculty and students at an organization like Cleveland Clinic will help us learn how to more efficiently teach and adapt Watson to a new field through interaction with experts," David Ferrucci of IBM told the BBC.
As the Cleveland Center is a teaching facility as well as an active hospital, students will benefit from Watson coming to more accurate diagnoses and treating patients more effectively. This immersive experience will also help the computer gain an in-depth knowledge of medical terms and practices, helping it learn and grow into a more clinical device. The Inquirer wrote that IBM's goal is to produce a tool that can assess a patient faster than any doctor, providing better palliative care and quality of service than a physician or nurse could hope to match. According to the BBC, IBM markets Watson as the ultimate medical resource, as the company claims about one-fifth of all healthcare diagnoses worldwide are incorrect. This in turn would lead to inadequate or harmful treatment plans, a scenario Watson is perfectly positioned to prevent.
"Technology will never replace the doctor," said James Stoller, chair of Cleveland Center's education institute, "but it can make us better."