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Can anyone afford an IBM Watson supercomputer? (Yes)

February 21, 2011 06:00 AM ET

According to Tony Pearson, master inventor and senior consultant at IBM, a Power 750 server retails for $34,500. Thus the 90 that make up Watson would cost about $3 million.

"That's not bad. You're going to spend $3 million on an MRI machine," Pearson said. "If you look at how expensive hospital equipment is, cost is not the issue."

A hospital, or even physician's office, doesn't necessarily have to buy the full clustered Watson computer system. The original compute algorithm single threaded on a single core processor took two hours to scan memory and produce an answer to a question. IBM technologists just added 2,880 CPUs, which produced the ability to answer the Jeopardy questions in three-seconds.

If a hospital or physician is willing to wait 30 seconds for an answer, then you'd only need one-tenth of that compute power or nine machines.

"So you're in the $300,000 range," Pearson said. "It's quite possible [to wait two hours] if you run it on your Power 750 at home. I'd bet there are some people who'd say, 'heck, I can't even get my doctor to call me back in two hours.' I think it's reasonable that larger hospital systems will have the bigger machines and smaller hospitals might settle for waiting a little longer for an answer."

"Watson seems amazing, but I'm not sure how it can take all that unstructured data and process it," said Marc Probst, CIO of Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, which services close to half the population of Utah.

Probst said he's skeptical because Watson's structured database is very dissimilar to the unstructured data in an EHR format.

"I don't know how well Watson works with Nuance, but there's so much detailed data in healthcare," Probst said. "It's known that the human mind can process 7 to 9 data items and consistently. The average clinical decision application uses over 40 data items to make a decision. So, there's much more data involved."

Last week, Intermountain Healthcare opened a 10,000-square-foot informatics research center supported by two data centers. Intermountain's Homer Warner Center for Informatics Research staffs 65 physicians and PhDs charged with providing decision support functions to clinicians, as well as provide input on the best possible care options.

For example, several years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the findings of a study that showed a correlation between the number of babies that wind up on ventilators in neonatal intensive care units (NIC) and at what point physicians induced labor.

"Using the practices and technologies in place at the Homer-Warner Center, we were able to change behavior. It had a dramatic impact on the health of babies," he said. "We were at about 30% of births induced prior to 39 weeks." Now, he said, "about 3%" are induced that early.

Probst said reducing the number of babies in NIC units saves "millions and millions" of dollars per hospital in his system. "We've got hundreds of such examples," he said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and healthcare IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter@lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Read more about High Performance Computing in Computerworld's High Performance Computing Topic Center.



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