What else can IBM Watson do?

Early this year, IBM’s Watson impressed the world when beat the two former champions at the Jeopardy! TV quiz show. Now, the question is: what else can IBM Watson do?

At this moment, IBM is developing applications in collaboration with physicians and researchers at Columbia University and the University of Maryland. Meanwhile, it took one researcher just three months to adapt the Watson Jeopardy! database to the medical field. Presumably, adaptations to other domains will be relatively easy, as well.

The great barrier to apply Watson’s technology into the business world, at this moment is the cost. Watson is “embarrassingly parallel,” in computer science parlance—meaning the machine uses thousands of high-performance microprocessors. Embarrassing parallelism is still very expensive.

According to David Davidian, an IBM Senior System Architect, “Watson is a massively parallel system based on the IBM POWER7 750 in a standard rack mounted configuration.” It can run AIX, IBM’s house-brand Unix; IBM I; and Linux. To compete on Jeopardy Watson is running Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Watson is made up of ninety IBM POWER 750 servers, 16 Terabytes of memory, and 4 Terabytes of clustered storage. Davidian sontinued, “This is enclosed in ten racks including the servers, networking, shared disk system, and cluster controllers. These ninety POWER 750 servers have four POWER7 processors, each with eight cores. IBM Watson has a total of 2880 POWER7 cores.”

That’s no knock against IBM — the company has some very smart people doing some weird and fascinating things, like Keith Dierkz, the director of the company’s Global Rail Innovation Center, who spends his working days studying traffic and how to improve it.

Now, IBM’s Watson started to show off its more practical skills medical knowledge. It recently gave a demonstration to the Associated Press. According to the AP:

Watson was gradually given information about a fictional patient with an eye problem. As more clues were unveiled — blurred vision, family history of arthritis, Connecticut residence — Watson’s suggested diagnoses evolved from uveitis to Behcet’s disease to Lyme disease. It gave the final diagnosis a 73 percent confidence rating.

The first commercial offerings could be available in 18 months. Hospitals and clinics may gobble up the technology. What’s more, the existence of Doc Watson would likely change what students in medical school study, Herbert Chase, who is working on the project at Columbia University. “I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” he said. “The power of Watson-like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”

Which is why the IBM computer Watson’s victory on Jeopardy is so amazing. Yes, it’s a great feat for artificial intelligence — Google can’t recognize natural language queries. For now, Watson is accomplishing something even more important: it’s making college kids want to work for IBM again.


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