IBM's Watson gets medical job

A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference to discuss the upcoming Man V. Machine 'Jeopardy!' competition at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on Jan. 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Kai Ryssdal: This next item won't be much solace to health care professionals looking for work, but IBM's "Jeopardy"-winning supercomputer Watson has landed a new gig.

WellPoint, the health insurance company, says it's going to use Watson to suggest treatment options and diagnoses to doctors. Marketplace's Steve Henn has more.


Steve Henn: After Watson cleaned up on "Jeopardy," my editor said she'd like to date him.

Alex Trebek: Watson!

Watson: Who is Mary Leaky?

Trebek: You're right.

Watson: Let's finish 'Chicks dig me.'

After all, Watson listens. Watson's great at understanding human speech with all its ambiguities. Watson absorbs huge amounts of information and learns from experience. My editor wasn't the only one who fell in love.

Sam Nussbaum: In general, we envision Watson being used for very complex clinical situations early on.

Sam Nussbaum is the chief medical officer for WellPoint Technologies.

Nussbaum: Dr. Watson -- think of him as a consulting physician, think of him as having completed med school, internship residency. What's unique about Dr. Watson is he has had fellowships in all medical domains and all medical specialties.

And Watson can apply all that knowledge to patients' charts and electronic records.

Kevin Frick is a health care economist at Johns Hopkins. He says the hope is Watson will help doctors keep up with new science, avoid mistakes and reduce health care costs.

Kevin Frick: If you make it feel like something that people can easily use and want to use and can make use of, that's great but...

Henn: Bedside manner still matters.

Frick: Yes.

And that's where Watson may have an advantage over programs that have been tried before, because it's great at understanding spoken language.

Still, Manoj Saxena at IBM says it's a mistake to think Watson as a real doctor. It's a tool.

Manoj Saxena: To use your dating example, we don't want to date Watson. We just want to help Watson find the right partner.

Saxena says Watson will never replace your physician -- and it will never bring you flowers -- but it could make your doctors better at their jobs.

In Silicon Valley, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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