Monday, June 29, 2015

The Future is Now, and Watson is its Name

Tina Cascone demonstrates Watson, officially the Oncology Expert Advisor,
at MD Anderson’s leukemia treatment center in Houston. 

There was an interesting article in The Washington Post yesterday about the extension of the Watson computer system of IBM to the field of Cancer diagnosis.
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.

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.
Originally made up of a cluster of supercomputers that took up as much space at IBM as a master bedroom, Watson is now trimmer — the size of three stacked pizza boxes — and versions of it live in the server rooms of IBM’s various partners.
Among the most ambitious (of the Watson Cancer related) projects is a partnership with 14 cancer centers to use Watson to help choose therapies based on a tumor’s genetic fingerprints. Doctors have known for years that some treatments work miraculously on some patients but not at all on others due to genetics. But the expense and complexity in identifying genetic mutations and matching them up with potential therapies has made it difficult for more than a handful of patients to benefit from this new approach. The service is scheduled to launch later this year. 
Meanwhile, Watson is continuing its on-the-ground training with cancer specialists. 
In 2011, IBM announced that Watson had learned as much as a second-year medical student. Since then it’s graduated and has been doing residencies at some of the nation’s top cancer centers, including Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and the Cleveland Clinic. In late September, Watson achieved another training milestone: It began its first fellowship in a specialty — leukemia — at MD Anderson.
When Watson beat the best humans at a television quiz show, the capability of the approach was demonstrated. Now we see this advanced computer processing approach applied to problems of real importance. With its natural language capabilities, Watson can "read" and organize vast quantities of textual information, such as that from medical journals. With its very high speed (as compared with human thought) Watson can search its data base for information relevant to a specific issue/question -- in this case, "what is the appropriate treatment for this cancer in this patient".

This looks like an important amplification of human intelligence. I wonder where it will be used next -- foreign policy, intelligence analysis, where?

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