IBM's Watson is soon to hit a major milestone: it'll begin to deal with real patients. You might recall that this is one of the major goals IBM laid out for Watson back at its inception. As a "learning" computer, Watson has the ability to peruse information, understand it to the best of its ability, and then develop algorithms based on the information it's learned to help produce some (hopefully) accurate guidance to the patients it deals with.
While the ultimate plan is to have Watson-based computers replace doctors to a small degree, it's never going to be the final answer in a serious diagnosis. The idea is that, with the constant shortage of doctors, Watson will be able to do preliminary tests on patients, saving time for human doctors, who will then come in and wrap things up. It really sounds like science fiction, but seriously - how cool is that?
First Jeopardy! Next, dealing with real patients
When Watson examines a patient, it won't simply be asking them a bunch of Yes / No questions, but will actually take a look at the person's chart, gather the information in requires, and then pass that along its chain of algorithms to spit out the best possible solution. In one case, it might offer more than one course-of-action to take, with confidence levels attached to each. Again, it's ultimately a real doctor's say in the end, but Watson will help kick-start the process.
Watson's use here really shouldn't be understated. If implemented in the way we're promised, this could be a truly ground-breaking development in the medical industry. While there is the concern of things like false-positives or outright incorrect information, that's a bridge we'll have to cross once we get to it. At this point, it really does feel like the upsides will outweigh the negatives, especially in places where doctors are seriously lacking. One would imagine that adding a new Watson to the fleet would be easier than adding a new doctor.
If IBM's promises do live up, could we see Watson outperform the analysis by real doctors? A scary thought, but cool at the same time.