Doctors Test Watson's Ability to Diagnose Illnesses

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Watson during a Jeopardy! practice game. [Photo: IBM press photo]
IBM's supercomputer Watson isn't only good for owning at Jeopardy. Or at least, doctors hope it's not only good for that--Herbert Chase, professor of clinical medicine in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia, has been working with IBM to retrofit Watson to help doctors diagnose and treat patients.

Chase and two of his students at the College of Physicians and Surgeons have been testing Watson over the past year to see if it will eventually be capable of helping doctors out. The tests involve asking the computer a series of questions and sorting through the answers.

If the retrofitting works, Watson could be a huge help to physicians by giving them quick, accurate answers to difficult questions. According to a special article from The Record, Columbia University's newspaper, the computer would be able to draw on both published research and the blogosphere to supply its answers.

The Record points out that the general practitioner usually has a great breadth of knowledge, but lacks in-depth information about specific diseases, and that the specialist generally has great depth of knowledge, but lacks breadth.

"Watson has both breadth and depth," Chase told The Record, "It can look up anything, in terms of breadth--bone disease, OBGYN, dermatology. But it also has incredible depth. And it can bring to the primary care physician the depth that he or she would not otherwise have access to."

So far, Watson has been passing Chase's tests with flying colors. Chase and his students can give the computer several symptoms, and the computer is able to spit back a few accurate diagnoses.

Still, Watson won't be replacing your primary physician anytime soon--because it has awful bedside manner.

"The computer is never going to be able to read the signals that the patient is emoting, like 'I don't really want to do that' or 'I'm a little afraid of that,'" Chase said.

Chase's team has yet to test Watson in another way--to see how comfortable patients are with a computer spitting back diagnoses. Would you be comfortable if your highly-trained physician was asking a computer what disease you had?

[The Record via Engadget]

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