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IBM Seeks To Move Watson Computer Beyond Game Shows

September 13, 2011

IBM's Watson proved to a national audience that the computer system can handily defeat Jeopardy champions in a game show. Now the 100-year-old tech giant is on a mission to demonstrate that Watson is the Next Big Thing for industries ranging from call centers to government security.

First on the list is health care. On Monday IBM announced that health insurance company Wellpoint had agreed to use the Watson system to provide doctors with more up-to-date information and possible solutions.

"With medical information doubling every five years and health care costs increasing, Watson has tremendous potential for applications that improve the efficiency of care and reduce wait times for diagnosis and treatment by enabling clinicians with access to the best clinical data the moment they need it," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM's Watson Solutions.

The Wellpoint deal marks IBM's first effort to transition the system from a game-show oddity to an effective data analysis platform, which the company says could streamline a wide range of data-intensive programs, including tech support and efforts to curb fraud and abuse.

At an event at the National Press Club on Tuesday, IBM demonstrated Watson's capacity to help diagnose a patient based on his or her symptoms, as well as recommend potential treatments. Physicians at the event agreed that Watson has the potential to revolutionize the way information is shared in the health care industry, but IBM may have a way to go to prove the powerful new technology can move beyond parlor tricks.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a doctor, was enthusiastic about Watson's "tremendous potential" to become a lingua franca, but during brief remarks at Tuesday's event he seemed unsure about the specific impact of the artificial intelligence system.

And Cassidy is not alone. "I would want to make sure Watson was being directed as an objective tool," Dr. John Glaspy, an oncologist at the University of California, Los Angeles., told The Wall Street Journal, expressing concern that the system could be programmed to emphasize cost over effectiveness when making medical recommendations.

Still, Watson has sparked enthusiasm among IT managers, as more and more industries are inundated with data.

"The ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language and quickly process information to find precise answers can help unlock important knowledge and facts buried within huge volumes of information," IBM said in a statement.

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