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IBM's Watson: 'Think' Of The Implications

"Think" has been a watchword of IBM for a very long time. Until recently, that simple word applied only to IBM employees and the customers that would embrace the principles behind it. With the success of IBM's natural language computer system Watson in last week's "Jeopardy!" matches, "think" can now be applied to one of its computer systems, as well. However, it's the future of Watson that we would now take into account.

IBM recognizes that Watson could open numerous commercial opportunities, so it should come as no surprise that, in the wake of "Jeopardy!," the company publicly announced the first of them: an agreement with Nuance Communications to sell Watson-based products to health-care providers. Nuance offers voice recognition software used by doctors to dictate medical records. Now doctors will be able to use Watson as an assistant by orally describing symptoms and getting diagnostic information in return. Note that Nuance can communicate via multiple platforms, including automated call centers, mobile phones and auto dashboards. Watson will make available to the doctor reference materials, prior cases and patients' latest medical records.

As a speaker on an IBM webinar about the future of Watson pointed out, the system will help with differential diagnoses by providing a systematic method for identifying unknowns. Watson uses evidence-based knowledge and develops a level of confidence in each answer.

On "Jeopardy!" Watson could return only one response. In this real-world scanario, Watson can return more than one answer. This is good because there may be no one precise answer. Moreover, the need for more evidence, such as a test, may be indicated, and that can help improve the diagnosis. The agreement with Nuance gets IBM's Dr. Watson ball rolling and would seem to be a good thing.

Understand that Watson is a huge, monolithic system, spreading 2,880 cores over some 90 blade servers, with 15TBytes of memory and scores of terabytes of storage. So, in one sense, Watson might be considered the new mainframe. As such, a full-blown Watson is unlikely to fit on your desktop in the near future. However, given the dramatic improvements in network communications, Watson might very well be the core system of a software as a service (SaaS) cloud that can be accessed over the Internet by any device, including mobile devices such as cell phones. Technically, the latency of a cloud should not be a problem--see Google as a reference.

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