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IBM: Watson will eventually fit on a smartphone, diagnose illness

Next up for IBM's supercomputer, passing the physicians licensing exam

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To date, Watson has ingested more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the area of oncology research. In a matter of seconds, Watson can sift through 1.5 million patient records representing decades of cancer treatment history, such as medical records and patient outcomes, and provide to physicians evidence based treatment options.

Jeopardy! Is old news

The Watson supercomputer that handily beat past Jeopardy! champions was made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by eight-core processors -- four in each machine for a total of 32 processors per machine. The clustered system had 2,880 cores and 15TB of memory. The servers were virtualized using a kernel-based virtual machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is 1 trillion operations per second.

Today, Watson's software can run on one-sixteenth the number of servers the original system used, Pelino said.

Saxena sees a time when big data and the Watson supercomputer are integrated, allowing it to focus its teraflop processing capabilities on, for example, personal genomics. Watson and other supercomputers could access massive gene-sequencing data stores to determine which patients react best to specific medicines, ushering in an era of personalized healthcare.

"We refer to this as Big Data cognitive analytics," Saxena said. "Cloud embedded with the cognitive capabilities of Watson. You'll see this by the end of this year."

Right now, Watson's cognitive abilities to crunch massive amounts of data and interpret the results is limited "to a few people in the U.S.," Saxena said, referring to its current deployment in only a few hospitals.

"It's like you're the Coca Cola company, and you only have one fountain dispenser in this country in Houston. Everybody likes Coke, but they have to go to Houston to drink Coke. I want Watson to be the bottling and distribution plant for all of their [the medical industry's] knowledge and distributed around the world through a browser, through a handheld, through whatever interface," Saxena said.

"Big data will make Moore's Law look small," he said.

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

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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