IBM’s Watson Goes from Jeopardy to Medicine

IBM’s (NYSE: IBM) “Watson” supercomputer is on a roll. After beating a pair of previous Jeopardy champions handily this week, Watson is taking on the world of medicine, IBM announced Thursday.

Big Blue officials said that the company will work with voice recognition firm Nuance Communications (NASDAQ: NUAN) to integrate the smaller company’s voice technologies into Linux-based Watson in order to help adapt it for use in the healthcare industry.

Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are also contributing to the project, according to IBM.

Physicians at Columbia University are helping to identify critical issues in the practice of medicine where the Watson technology may be able to contribute, IBM said. At the University of Maryland, physicians are working to identify the best way that a technology like Watson could interact with medical practitioners to provide what the company termed “maximum assistance.”

IBM and Nuance said that they expect the first products based on their collaboration to hit the market in 18 to 24 months.

Combining our analytics expertise with the experience and technology of Nuance, we can transform the way that healthcare professionals accomplish everyday tasks by enabling them to work smarter and more efficiently,” Dr. John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, said in a statement.

The initiative includes plans to combine IBM’s Deep Question Answering, natural language processing, and machine learning with Nuance’s speech recognition and existing Clinical Language Understanding technologies.

Come here Watson, I need you

The two firms said that Watson’s ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language, and quickly process information to find precise answers can assist decision makers, such as physicians and nurses, unlock important knowledge and facts buried within huge volumes of information. As a result, the system could offer answers the medical staff may not have considered to help validate their own ideas or hypotheses.

In the deal, the two companies will both invest in a multi-year initiative to research applications of Watson to provide diagnosis and treatment for patients. Nuance has also licensed the Watson technology from IBM.

IBM and Nuance also have a five-year research initiative already under way in which the two companies plan to advance the field of natural language processing. Nuance will market any products that come from that initiative.

As for the supercomputer, no word yet on whether it will be granted the additional title of “Doctor Watson.”

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.

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