IBM’s Watson goes to medical school

November 2, 2012

(Credit: IBM)

Next up for Watson: a stint as a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, New York Times Bits reports.

The collaboration includes a bit of controlled crowdsourcing, with the Cleveland clinicians and medical school students answering Watson’s questions and correcting its mistakes.

“Hopefully, we can contribute to the training of this technology,” said Dr. James K. Stoller, chairman of the Education Institute at Cleveland Clinic. The goal, he added, was for Watson to become a “very smart assistant.”

Part of Watson’s training will be to feed it test questions from the United States Medical Licensing Exam, which every human student must pass to become a practicing physician. The benefit for Watson should be to have a difficult but measurable set of questions on which to measure the progress of its machine-learning technology.

Once trained, Watson ought to be able to help physicians cope better with the rapid pace of incoming new research. Dr. Stoller estimates that the “half-life of existing knowledge” in medicine is probably down to four to eight years on most topics. After that, it’s obsolete, or partly so.

Someday, Watson should be able to collect and assess patient data, and then construct “inference paths” toward a probable diagnosis — digesting information, missing nothing and winnowing choices for a human doctor.