09 Jul 2014

by Owen Williams


You’ve probably heard of IBM’s Watson before; back in 2011 the supercomputer appeared on Jeopardy, where it bested previous champions in  a surprise win. 

Since then, Watson has come a long way, with IBM investing significantly in developing the cognitive layer of the computer and helping it understand how the world works in deeper, better ways. Instead of relying on algorithms and metadata alone, with Watson, a computer can be fed information and figure out what it’s all about.


A good example of this cognitive layer is when Watson was on display at this year’s SXSW. Watson was used at a food truck to demonstrate its “cognitive cooking” power. To create menus for customers,  Watson was given 35,000 recipes to learn about pairings, flavors and more. The result was a number of unconventional dishes that people actually loved. So if Watson can figure out the best way to make a meal, what are the implications in an area that affects us deeply, such as healthcare?

Marc Boudria, lead solutions engineer at Chaotic Moon Studios, thinks that Watson is the “largest leap forward in enterprise infrastructure in the last 20 years.” It brings about a whole new level of thought, one not possible in a computer before. For healthcare, this is huge, as Watson can act as another set of eyes and ears for medical professionals. Since Watson can learn from information, it can be fed everything it needs to know about procedures, medicine and other practices to infer and grow its knowledge from that.

A big problem facing the healthcare industry today is getting experienced doctors to pass their vast knowledge along to younger doctors. There’s simply not enough time to teach every resident everything they know. But if the “old guard” could instead teach Watson what they know, residents could use the technology as the 24/7 place to get information on anything.

With deep information on medical data — and the best knowledge from doctors over time — Watson could become a reliable helper for those who want medical advice. This is why Boudria also sees the healthcare industry using Watson as a medical concierge, a sort of unbiased medium between the doctor and the patient, ensuring there’s nothing the doctor has missed and that the patient is realizing the benefit of having his or her medical data collected historically.



This isn’t distant future either, as Watson is being used right now in the operating room. Whenever prosthetic implants are being installed, a representative from the company must attend the surgery to ensure it’s done correctly. This is inefficient and expensive, since someone needs to be sent out almost every time. To solve this problem, Boudria said IBM has spent a significant amount of time teaching Watson about these medical implants and how they’re installed. Watson can now stand in for the representative and be asked what to do, with the computer proving the correct contextual information for the situation.

Outside of its applications in hospitals and doctors’ offices, Boudria believes Watson could also help with personal health decisions. For example, it could be asked if someone’s picked the best insurance or doctors and then provide an analysis based on the available information. Watson could even man medical hotlines and answer callers’ health questions within three sentences of prompting.

When wearables are in the mix, Watson gets even more compelling. Boudria said if you mash Watson’s brains into wearables that feature biofeedback, it could help people manage their health altogether instead of just presenting them with data they’re required to interpret.

Watson could even review personal calendars and other info to determine if an individual is stressed and in need of break. Not only could Watson suggest a vacation, it can pick out the place and price the whole trip, simply asking if it should go ahead and book everything.

“Boudria is excited about the future.” “Watson has a more natural, contextual understanding of humanity” and there are more exciting things to come. Healthcare stands to benefit hugely from having an “always available aid” to ensure that things go smoothly and all options have been considered. Instead of just a single person giving you their knowledge about healthcare, soon you might be able to use Watson to analyze the entire history of healthcare and receive a diagnosis.