Now that the dust has settled on the Jeopardy showdown, IBM and Nuance Communications have announced a research agreement to develop the Watson supercomputer for the healthcare industry. The deal combines Big Blue's deep question answering (QA), natural language processing, and machine learning capabilities with Nuance's speech recognition and clinical language understanding (CLU) solutions to diagnose and even treat patients.

Dr. John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, is confident that the collaboration sets the stage to "transform the way healthcare professionals accomplish everyday tasks."

Meet Dr. Watson

IBM offered a scenario in which a doctor who is considering a patient diagnosis could use Watson's analytics technology and Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding solutions to consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature. Armed with this information, Watson could help medical professionals determine the most likely diagnosis and treatment options.

Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are also pitching into Dr. Watson's intelligence. Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient. "We also believe that Watson has the ability to help doctors provide personalized treatment options that are tailored to an individual patient's needs," he said.

Exploiting Watson's Full Potential

IBM thinks a Dr. Watson could save lives and that seems very likely, said David Hill, principal analyst at the Mesabi Group. In any event, he said, IBM seems most comfortable dealing with applications that are an extension of its enterprise Relevant Products/Services-business focus. While that's fine, IBM may not exploit Watson's full potential.

"For example, it does not seem like Watson will appear on the Internet anytime soon in a Google-like service. This is understandable, since it is a different business model than IBM is used to. But given Watson's potential, why not license the technology to someone who can make use of it?" Hill asked. "There are other possible areas where Watson's ease of use could be valuable."

Hill suggested making Watson available via a cell phone would allow people to ask a natural-language question and get back a very precise answer verbally -- rather than having to try to review information on a small screen in text. Another option, he said, is the possibility of a micro-Watson on a desktop.

"Still, why is Watson so important? What use is it? As Benjamin Franklin once said, 'What is the use of a newborn baby?' If you did not know that Watson was a computer, could you tell it apart from the other contestants?" Hill asked. "The answer is no, and so Watson passes a very important intelligence test that some would not have thought could be passed for many more years, if ever. That alone qualifies it as a milestone in computer intelligence."