Watson Goes to College

March 9, 2013

Back in early 2011, I wrote a number of posts here about IBM’s Watson system, which scored a convincing victory over human champions in the long-running TV game show, Jeopardy!.   Since then, IBM with its partners has launched efforts to employ Watson in a variety of other fields, including marketing, financial services and medical diagnosis, in which Watson’s ability to assimilate a large body of information from natural language sources can be put to good use.

Now, according to a post on the Gigaom blog, Watson will, in a sense, return to its roots in computer science research.  IBM has supplied a Watson system to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [RPI] in Troy, NY.  According to Professor James Hendler, author of the post, and head of the Computer Science department at RPI, one focus of the work with Watson will be expanding the scope of information sources the system can use.

One of our first goals is to explore how Watson can be used in the big data context.  As an example, in the research group I run, we have collected information about more than one million datasets that have been released by governments around the world. We’re going to see what it takes to get Watson to answer questions such as “What datasets are available that talk about crop failures in the Horn of Africa?”.

Some of the research work with Watson will also be aimed at gaining more understanding of the process of cognition, and the interplay of a large memory and sophisticated processing.

By exploring how Watson’s memory functions as part of a more complex problem solver, we may learn more about how our own minds work. To this end, my colleague Selmer Bringsjord, head of the Cognitive Science Department, and his students, will explore how adding a reasoning component to Watson’s memory-based question-answering could let it do more powerful things.

The Watson system is being provided to RPI as part of a Shared University Research Award granted by IBM Research.  It will have approximately the same capacity as the system used for Jeopardy!, and will be able to support ~20 simultaneous users.  It will be fascinating to see what comes out of this research.

The original IBM press release is here; it includes a brief video from Prof. Hendler.

Dr. Watson Goes to Work

February 10, 2013

Back in early 2011, I wrote a number of posts here about IBM’s Watson system, which scored a convincing victory over human champions in the long-running TV game show, Jeopardy!.  The match, as a demonstration of the technology, was undoubtedly impressive, but the longer term aim was to employ Watson’s ability to cope with natural language and to assimilate a huge body of data for work in other areas, such as financial services, marketing, and medical diagnosis.  It’s also been suggested that Watson might be made available as a service “in the cloud”.

On Friday, IBM, together with development partners WellPoint, Inc. and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, announced the availability of Watson-based systems for cancer diagnosis and care.

IBM , WellPoint, Inc.,  and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center today unveiled the first commercially developed Watson-based cognitive computing breakthroughs.  These innovations stand alone to help transform the quality and speed of care delivered to patients through individualized, evidence based medicine.

Since the beginning of the development, Watson has absorbed more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence and 2 million pages of text from 42 medical journals.  It has also had thousands of hours of training from clinicians and technology specialists.  The goal is to provide doctors and other care-givers with a menu of treatment options.

Watson has the power to sift through 1.5 million patient records representing decades of cancer treatment history, such as medical records and patient outcomes, and provide to physicians evidence based treatment options all in a matter of seconds.

Keeping up with the latest developments in medical research and clinical practice is a serious issue in health care; by some estimates, the amount of available information doubles every five years.  A system based on Watson may give doctors a better chance of staying on top of all of that.

Three specific products were announced today:

The new products include the Interactive Care Insights for Oncology, powered by Watson, in collaboration with IBM, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and WellPoint.   The WellPoint Interactive Care Guide and Interactive Care Reviewer, powered by Watson, designed for utilization management in collaboration with WellPoint and IBM.

The Watson system has improved technically since its debut on Jeopardy!.  IBM says that its performance has increased by 240%, and its physical resource requirements reduced by 75%.  It can now be run on a single Power 750 server.

There’s more information on the technology at IBM’s Watson site.

Watson in the Clouds

September 24, 2012

I’ve written here several times about IBM’s Watson system, which first gained some public notice as a result of its convincing victory in a Jeopardy! challenge match against two of the venerable game show’s most accomplished human champions.   Since then, IBM has announced initiatives to put Watson to work in a variety of areas, including medical diagnosis, financial services, and marketing.  All of these applications rely on Watson’s ability to process a very large data base of information in natural language, and to use massively  parallel processing to draw inferences from it.  (The Watson system that won the Jeopardy! test match used 10 racks of servers, containing 2880 processor cores, and 16 terabytes of memory.)

Now an article in the New Scientist suggests an intriguing  new possibility for Watson, as a cloud-based service.

Watson, the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer developed by IBM, could become a cloud-based service that people can consult on a wide range of issues, the company announced yesterday.

The details of this are, at this point, fuzzy at best, but making Watson available as a cloud service would certainly make it accessible to a much larger  group of users, given the sizable investment required for a dedicated system.

Because Watson can respond to natural language queries, it is tempting to compare it to other existing systems.  Apple’s Siri, for example, can interpret and respond to spoken requests, but the back-end processor is essentially a search engine.  The Wolfram|Alpha system also responds to natural-language queries, but its ability to deliver answers depends on a structured data base of information, as Dr. Stephen Wolfram has explained.  Watson really is a new sort of system.

All of this is still in the very early stages, of course, but it will be fascinating to see how it develops.

Dr. Watson Will See You Now

September 18, 2011

Today’s edition of the Washington Post has an interesting article,by Martin Ford, on the potential application of IBM’s Jeopardy!-winning Watson technology in medicine.   You will probably recall that medical diagnosis was mentioned prominently by IBM as a potential practical use of Watson’s technology. On September 12, IBM and Wellpoint, the largest medical benefits company in the US by membership, announced an agreement for the joint development of medical applications.

The article points out some of the areas in which Watson could provide real assistance to medical personnel, based on its ability to process huge amounts of information in unstructured, natural language documents.

Watson could churn through millions of case histories to learn what diagnosis is likely to be correct and what treatment would be the most effective. The system could almost instantly process medical textbooks, electronic medical records and the latest published research, illuminating obscure links among studies in seemingly unrelated specialties. Watson could someday be a standard diagnostic tool. Its ability to make sense of a universe of data would be far beyond that of any person or team of experienced physicians.

Watson’s ability to process enormous amounts of information will come in handy; it has been estimated that the overall body of medical knowledge doubles in size about every five years.  A more efficient, and less error prone, method of assimilating the flood of new information might help check the ongoing escalation of health care costs.  Combined with the growing  use of electronic medical records, the system could help spot unusual conditions, or rare but serious drug interactions.

Mr. Ford also points out that, if Watson can establish a track record as a diagnostician, it might help alleviate a projected shortage of physicians, especially in primary care. Some medical practices already use physician’s assistants to help them care for more patients; a system like Watson might make this a lot more common.

The article also touches on the threat that systems like Watson might pose to some sectors of the economy.  I’ve mentioned before the idea, suggested by the late computer science and AI pioneer, Joseph Weizenbaum, that intelligent systems might devalue routine mental labor, just as the Industrial Revolution devalued routine physical labor.  (I wrote about a proposal to use Watson in marketing not long ago.)   As with other disruptive technologies (genetic engineering comes to mind), there is, in some sense, no turning back. The knowledge of how to build Watson can’t be unlearned; the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.  To the extent that humans possess intelligence beyond that of machines, we will need to use it to make wise use of our discoveries.

[Martin Ford is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future; he also writes the Econfuture blog.]

Watson’s Encore

September 3, 2011

Back in the beginning of this year, I wrote several times about IBM’s Watson, a massively parallel computing system designed to compete on Jeopardy!,  the popular TV game show.  A televised test match was held in February, pitting Watson against two of the long-running shows most successful champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.   Watson won handily, raising some interesting questions in the process; the whole experiment was fascinating to watch.  It also prompted some thought-provoking discussion of different approaches to answering unstructured queries.

This past week, IBM and Sony Pictures, the producers of Jeopardy!, jointly announced that there would be an “encore presentation” (that is, a re-run) of the Watson match this month.  The three half-hour shows are slated to air on September 12, 13, and 14, in the regular local Jeopardy! time slots.  (The Jeopardy! site has some short video ads promoting the match.)   I’m looking forward to watching it again.

Watson in Marketing ?

July 9, 2011

Earlier this year, I wrote several posts on IBM’s Watson project, which produced a computer system that could compete — and win — on the popular TV game show, Jeopardy!.  I’ve also mentioned some of the more serious potential applications for Watson’s technology, including medical care.  (Watson is based on a technology developed by IBM called DeepQA.)

According to an article at the Extreme Tech site, IBM is now looking at ways in which Watson could be used in sales and technical support.  The idea of having a very well informed participant in the marketing process does have its attractions, at least from the (potential) customer’s point of view.

After conquering Jeopardy! and making inroads into the diagnosis of medical maladies, IBM’s next application for Watson is the wholescale revitalization of two very lucrative markets: sales and customer support. Think about it: how many times have you asked a salesperson a question about a product, only to have a blank smile or glib response fired back?

Since Watson combines the ability to search huge amounts of data with an “understanding” of natural language, it is not hard to imagine how it could be used in a technical support role.  (This kind of application of intelligent systems has historical precedent; one of the early expert systems was developed by Digital Equipment Corp., as it then was, to assist in specifying the configuration of their computer systems.)   There are many technical support database systems in existence already, of course.  One advantage that Watson might offer is the ability to deal with more unstructured data and to process natural language queries.

The idea of using Watson directly in marketing is somewhat more intriguing.  It might even be a positive development.  Not too many people enjoy receiving unsolicited sales calls; but it might be interesting to get a call from a really well-informed sales agent.  At least at first, it would have some novelty value: a telemarketer that could not only answer your questions, but answer them correctly.


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