What is Watson?
Watson is a supercomputer system created by an IBM research team that combines artificial intelligence (AI) with advanced analytical software, which gives it the ability to answer natural language questions through machine learning. Watson’s unique capacity to take unstructured data and extract relevant pieces of information is what makes it so valuable. For many, the first experience with Watson was watching it defeat two of the highest ranked champions on Jeopardy in 2011, which was its initial objective for being built. Since then, Watson has been utilized to make travel decisions, give cooking advice, advise healthcare professionals, and aid in clinical trial recruitment. Watson has the potential to impact every profession and every industry, and right now it is making huge strides in the field of healthcare and clinical trials.
How Does Watson Work?
To teach Watson about new subjects, first IBM technicians upload PDFs, Word documents, databases, journals, and websites to add to its body of knowledge; next, they curate the content to make sure it is relevant and up-to-date; finally, human experts begin to train Watson in machine learning to make sure it fully understands the subject. Once Watson has become an expert in the given subject, it is then asked to answer a question. To do so, it extracts key information from its vast amount of unstructured data, rates that data using a scoring algorithm, and then offers the best possible selection of answers based on the confidence score of its supporting evidence.1
Watson’s Cognitive Computing and its Medical Implications
Early on, IBM’s research team decided that, while Watson’s abilities could be applied in any field, they wanted to focus on one area first: medicine. Currently, Watson is being used by oncology physicians at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to find effective treatment options for their patients. Watson’s capacity to understand the complexities of human language and answer extremely difficult questions is what makes it such a valuable asset to the healthcare field. Watson can absorb more data in a 24 hour period than any human could in an entire lifetime, and it can read every medical journal in the world faster than a physician can drink a cup of coffee.2 With this immense knowledge, physicians can input the information and test results from a patient’s medical charts, and from there Watson will provide a range of treatment options, rated on a confidence percentage scale.
Watson has not only been aiding physicians in finding effective treatment plans for their oncology patients, but has also been helping them to place patients in clinical trials. Through cognitive computing, Watson for Clinical Trial Matching (CTM) provides doctors with the ability to easily find clinical trials that match each individual patient’s needs. With Watson’s help, researchers are able to enroll a higher number of patients because Watson chooses the most qualified group of individuals for the clinical trial protocol, at a rate far greater than humans could. Watson reduces the cumbersome and time-intensive recruitment process to seconds of computing and analytics. Currently, Watson for CTM is being tested by Mayo Clinic and ICON.3 In the coming years, we can anticipate additional companies adopting Watson to streamline the patient recruitment process.
Watson and the Future of Healthcare
While Watson has already accomplished so much in its short lifetime, IBM’s goal for the future is to have Watson broaden its focus from oncology patients to patients with all kinds of chronic illnesses. It is currently developing partnerships with a myriad of healthcare providers to grow Watson’s knowledge base and expand its capabilities. With this increased knowledge, Watson will have very few limitations and be able to provide physicians with an excellent second opinion for any kind of patient, and to identify a greater number of viable candidates for all types of clinical trials.
1 “What Is IBM Watson?” <i>IBM Watson: What Is Watson? IBM, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/ibmwatson/what-is-watson.html.
2 Gertner, Jon. “IBM’s Watson Is Learning Its Way To Saving Lives.” Fast Company, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. http://www.fastcompany.com/3001739/ibms-watson-learning-its-way-saving-lives.
3 Alsumidaie, Moe, and Lisa Henderson. “Delving into ICON’s Use of IBM’s Watson.” Applied Clinical Trials, 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. http://www.appliedclinicaltrialsonline.com/delving-icons-use-ibms-watson.