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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

IBM's Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer, Watson, may have started out the size of a master bedroom, but it will eventually shrink to the size of a smart phone, its inventors say.

The supercomputer is currently performing "residencies" at several hospitals around the country, offering its data analytics capabilities for diagnosing and suggesting patient treatments.

IBM is also working to program Watson so that it can pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. Yes, the "Dr. Watson" moniker used in the media will someday be applicable.

Even today, a Watson supercomputer with the same computational capabilities as the system that took on Jeopardy!'s all-time champions, is a fraction of its former size. And, the smaller Watson is almost two-and-a-half times faster than the original system, according to Dan Pelino, general manager of IBM's Global Healthcare & Life Sciences business.

"It was the size of a master bedroom, but now it's the size of a bathroom," Pelino said "It will get to be a handheld device by 2020 based on a trajectory of Moore's Law."

By then, Pelino said, he can envision Watson being capable of image recognition sophisticated enough to determine the difference between a life-threatening bug bite and a rash on a child in a developing nation. It could then recommend treatment based on its diagnosis, Pelino said.

It's not so far-fetched, considering IBM has allocated $7 billion toward the Watson supercomputer's research and development.

Digesting unstructured data

One area IBM scientists are working to improve with Watson is its ability to process unstructured data - physicians' notes, research published in peer-reviewed medical and science journals, radiological images, biofeedback from wireless monitoring devices, and even comment threads from online patient communities. All of that information can be used in the melting pot of data analytics.

"Ninety percent of the world's information has been created over the past 10 years, and 80% of that 90% is unstructured data," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of Watson solutions in IBM's Software Group. "That data needs to be digestible."

Today, Watson is developing its resume working with oncologists at Memorial-Kettering Cancer Center in diagnosing and treating patients.

That project, announced a year ago, follows efforts by IBM and WellPoint to jointly develop applications that will essentially turn Watson into an adviser for oncologists at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles.

Last month, IBM announced that WellPoint and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center unveiled the first commercially developed Watson-based cognitive computing breakthroughs.

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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