The Robot Will See You Now
Information technology that helps doctors and patients make decisions has been around for a long time. Crude online tools like WebMD get millions of visitors a day. But Watson is a different beast. According to IBM, it can digest information and make recommendations much more quickly, and more intelligently, than perhaps any machine before it—processing up to 60 million pages of text per second, even when that text is in the form of plain old prose, or what scientists call “natural language.”
That’s no small thing, because something like 80 percent of all information is “unstructured.” In medicine, it consists of physician notes dictated into medical records, long-winded sentences published in academic journals, and raw numbers stored online by public-health departments. At least in theory, Watson can make sense of it all. It can sit in on patient examinations, silently listening. And over time, it can learn. Just as Watson got better at Jeopardy the longer it played, so it gets better at figuring out medical problems and ways of treating them the more it interacts with real cases. Watson even has the ability to convey doubt. When it makes diagnoses and recommends treatments, it usually issues a series of possibilities, each with its own level of confidence attached.