Can anyone afford an IBM Watson supercomputer? (Yes)

IBM hopes hospitals become the first to take advantage of the technology that beat Jeopardy's top players

While Watson certainly impressed the nation with its sweeping victory on the game show Jeopardy last week, the medical community -- which IBM hopes will be first to use the technology -- may eventually become even more impressed with its affordability.

After showcasing Watson's ability to ingest Jeopardy questions and spit out near real-time answers, IBM is now preparing the supercomputer for a full-time gig as a data analytics engine for the medical community.

IBM announced this week it is working with speech and imaging recognition software provider Nuance Communications to produce a system that can help physicians and other healthcare professionals cull through gigabytes or terabytes of patient healthcare information to determine how to best treat illnesses.

"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," said John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research. "This initiative demonstrates how we plan to apply Watson's capabilities into new areas, such as healthcare with Nuance."

For example, a doctor treating a patient could use Watson's analytics technology, in conjunction with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding software, to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature. This could help medical professionals confidently determine the best options for diagnosis and treatment.

IBM is working with Dr. Eliot Siegel, professor and vice chairman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's department of diagnostic radiology, to bring that Watson project to fruition in the healthcare industry.

Siegel told Computerworld that patient information tends to be written in free form by physicians, who use abbreviations and short-text explanations. So it could take well over 10 minutes to an hour for another physician, radiologist or specialist to understand the intricacies of a patient's malady.

The ability to deliver a single, precise answer from these documents could go a long way in transforming the healthcare industry. Watson, the IBM computing system designed to play Jeopardy!, could deliver such a solution.

Now multiply one person's medical record by the thousands that a hospital or medical group might have, and the difficulty in finding best practices from healthcare trends becomes even more daunting.

Enter Watson.

IBM hopes that in about two years, Watson can be tweaked and go commercial to help hospitals and physicians take data from electronic health records (EHRs) and churn it into predictive modeling to determine the most likely outcomes from various treatments.

While there are many hurdles to achieving that goal -- such as the continuing lack of widespread EHR deployment -- Watson could one day save untold dollars and lives, IBM hopes.

Cost shouldn't be a significant factor as Watson is relatively cheap compared to medical technology routinely purchased by healthcare organizations.

The Watson supercomputer that appeared on Jeopardy last week was made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by 8-core processors -- four in each machine for a total of 32 processors per machine. The servers are virtualized using a Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.

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