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IBM: Future computers will be constant learners

Joab Jackson | Feb. 17, 2012
Tomorrow's computers will constantly improve their understanding of the data they work with, which in turn will help them provide users with more appropriate information, predicted the software mastermind behind IBM's Watson system.

Watson did win at its "Jeopardy" match. Now IBM thinks the Watson computing model can have a wide range of uses.

"There is a lot more work to do, but [Watson] is something we can adapt and customize to new domains. The Watson technology is not about question-in and answer-out, but rather it is understanding a problem," Ferrucci said.

The key to this technology, Ferrucci said, is that it queries both itself and its users for feedback on the answers it generates. "As you use the system, it will follow up with you and ask you questions that will help improve its confidence of its answer. In its work with you it will capture new information it can use," he said.

One field IBM is investigating is medicine. The company is working with medical researchers and doctors from Columbia University to adapt Watson so it can offer medical diagnosis and treatment.

"Medicine is the ultimate information-based profession," said Herbert Chase, a Columbia professor of clinical medicine, who also spoke at the conference. Watson could serve as a diagnostic assistant and even offer treatment plans, he said.

A big problem that doctors face today is having too much information. The scientific body of knowledge about how the human body works has expanded beyond any one person's ability to understand. For doctors, "there is all this information out there, [but] we can't access it," Chase said. "We can't even find the information." In many cases, doctors make decisions not knowing what other doctors have learned about a particular condition or set of conditions. Wrong and missed diagnostics account for 30 percent of medical errors, he said.

Chase displayed a demo about how a doctor could use Watson. A person comes into the emergency room complaining of pain in the eyes, a problem that the attendee hasn't seen before. Watson provides a list of differential diagnoses, or a range of possible answers, ranked by probability. "We want to be prompted to get ideas," he said. The most obvious answer could be uveitis. A doctor can look at the list and think of a few easy tests to distinguish which problem it may be. The patient may also have a rash and a fever. A doctor can then ask Watson about these additional symptoms in light of the diagnosis. Watson can provide an answer that may not be intuitive, such as Lyme disease.

Watson can also provide a list of ways to treat a patient, drawing from guidelines from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control. If the patient has complicating factors, such as being pregnant and having a penicillin allergy, Watson can provide an entirely new set of guidelines. "The machine can match the user's need and drill down and find the right information," Chase said.


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