IBM's Watson to Diagnose Patients

Watson, IBM's game-show-playing supercomputer, will soon try its hand at helping physicians diagnose and treat their patients.

IBM announced earlier this year that healthcare would be the first commercial application for the computer, which defeated two human champions on the popular television game show "Jeopardy!" in February.

IBM and WellPoint -- Blue Cross Blue Shield's largest health plan -- this month agreed to jointly create applications that can be used by doctors and other medical personnel.

The software will use the concept of "evidence-based medicine," which centers around best practices in treating patients. One simple example of evidence-based medicine would be placing someone who's had a heart attack on an aspirin regimen.

Watson consists 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 with a kernel-based virtual machine scheme, resulting in a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. (A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.)

That horsepower can help medical professionals cull through a lot of information quickly. Watson can search 200 million pages of data and provide responses in just seconds.

"Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient's medical care -- symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies," said Dr. Sam Nussbaum, WellPoint's chief medical officer, in a statement. "Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and advance a course of treatment."

WellPoint expects to begin using Watson in clinical pilots early next year.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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