IBM Watson – What is it?

Ever since Watson was featured on the quiz show ‘Jeopardy’ in 2011, it seems to be everywhere – but what exactly is it?
In short, IBM Watson is a deep-learning question-answering AI system – capable of answering questions in natural language. This means that it doesn’t just retrieve information based on keywords, like Siri, but it understands context by breaking down sentences in much more depth.

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How does it work?

Unlike traditional computing which processed structured data sets, Watson can interpret unstructured data using the Apache UIMA framework – meaning it can mine data from literature and glean information. This is pretty handy seeing as an estimated 80% of data is unstructured. Watson is effectively ‘trained’ using human experts and machine learning – meaning that once the initial expert data is ingested, the result of every interaction is fed back into the system in order for it to ‘learn’.
It boasts some massive (or boring, depending on your fancy) hardware numbers: 16 TB of RAM, 80 teraflops process rate, 2,880 POWER7 processor threads etc. etc…. Basically, its capabilities are f#*king silly. It goes without saying that an AI system like this has pretty much unlimited possibilities, but one exciting application of note is healthcare.

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Doctor Watson

Cancer is not a subject that bears thinking about a lot of the time, but the brutal truth is that there’s a high chance that it will impact your life at some point (either directly or indirectly). IBM Watson for Oncology is helping doctors all across the world to devise the most effective and relevant treatment plans for patients suffering from various forms of cancer. Watson asses the patient’s medical records and the latest medical evidence, as well as medical journals and texts in order to provide treatment plans – ranked in order of confidence. Not only is this fantastic from a speed and assurance point of view, but specific drugs can be recommended based on the genomic information of a tumour using ‘precision healthcare’ – which can improve efficiency and effectiveness of treatment. For more info – check out this demonstration.

So, what about the future?

The sky really is the limit for IBM Watson Health – it has the potential to literally revolutionise healthcare. Not only could we all benefit by receiving the best treatments for various diseases, but it may even offer the route to the discovery of new drugs for diseases such Motor Neurone Disease (ALS) or Alzheimer’s. Could Watson increase our life expectancy into triple figures? Potentially. From a UK perspective, the NHS is seriously struggling, now more than ever. So, could Watson could literally save the NHS from its deathbed?