Watson, the computer brain of “Jeopardy!” fame, is training to be the world’s first artificial-intelligence expert in cancer. This is the program’s physical embodiment in an IBM server room in New York City. (Andrew Spear for The Washington Post)
Using their ideas and their billions, the visionaries who created Silicon Valley’s biggest technology firms are trying to transform the most complicated system in existence: the human body.
Rumor had it that he had finished med school in two years and had a photographic memory of thousands of journal articles and relevant clinical trials. When the fellows were asked to summarize patients’ records for the senior faculty in the mornings, he always seemed to have the best answers.
“I was surprised,” said Vitale, a 31-year-old who received her MD in Italy. “Even if you work all night, it would be impossible to be able to put this much information together like that.”
The new guy’s name was a mouthful, so many of his colleagues simply called him by his nickname: Watson.
Four years after destroying human competitors on “Jeopardy!” to win a suspense-filled tournament watched by millions, the IBM computer brain is everywhere. It’s done stints as a call center operator and hotel concierge, and been spotted helping people pick songs. It’s even published its own cookbook, with 231 pages of what the company calls “recipes for innovation.” (The reviews haven’t been flattering — one foodie declared one of Chef Watson’s creations “the worst burrito I’ve ever had.”)
But these feats were essentially gimmicks.
IBM is now training Watson to be a cancer specialist. The idea is to use Watson’s increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence to find personalized treatments for every cancer patient by comparing disease and treatment histories, genetic data, scans and symptoms against the vast universe of medical knowledge.
Such precision targeting is possible to a limited extent, but it can take weeks of dedicated sleuthing by a team of researchers. Watson would be able to make this type of treatment recommendation in mere minutes.
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The IBM program is one of several new aggressive health-care projects that aim to sift through the huge pools of data created by people’s records and daily routines and then identify patterns and connections to predict needs. It is a revolutionary approach to medicine and health care that is likely to have significant social, economic and political consequences.
Lynda Chin, a physician-scientist and associate vice chancellor for the University of Texas system who is overseeing the Watson project at MD Anderson Cancer Center, said these types of programs are key to “democratizing” medical treatment and eliminating the disparity that exists between those with access to the best doctors and those without.
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