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The Computer that Won on Jeopardy Goes into Medicine
September 13, 2011
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Watson, the supercomputer that defeated several former Jeopardy champions in February, is moving on to a new career: helping doctors make medical decisions for their patients. WellPoint, Inc., the largest health insurer in the United States, is teaming up with IBM to develop and launch medical technology based on the Watson platform, which was originally created with possible medical applications in mind.

The idea is to create a computer that will be able to answer questions about patient care from doctors and nurses. Watson can process 200 million pages of data in three seconds, which will, in theory, allow doctors to ask questions, input symptoms and compare reactions to treatments. But there are still technological questions to be answered. Watson did well on Jeopardy, but still got some answers very wrong. One question, in the category "U.S. Cities," provoked Watson to answer "What is Toronto?????" A funny mistake on a game show, but when medical decisions are at stake, that kind of error could prove fatal.

Alongside those concerns, there's the question of why WellPoint is interested in the technology in the first place. The company insures 34 million people in the States, and spent USD$1.3 million in the second quarter of this year lobbying the U.S. government, mainly in relation to the healthcare overhaul bill. The company states that its goal is "to improve the health of our members and our communities, and provide greater value to our customers and shareholders." Which group Watson will serve remains to be seen.

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