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Can IBM's Watson help cancer patients?

Watson's "Jeopardy"-winning AI skills will be put to use at a New York hospital to help diagnose and treat cancers.


Patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center may receive cancer diagnoses and treatment with the help of IBM's Watson supercomputer by the end of 2013.

Watson would make diagnoses and suggest treatment approaches that take into account individual patient concerns, the Associated Press reported today.

Using its natural-language processing powers, the artificial intelligence system will study textbooks, oncology studies, and medical records if patients give permission. An advisory panel will test its assessments of increasingly complicated cancer cases.

If the collaboration proves successful, Watson's knowledge base could be used to help treat cancer around the world.

"The capabilities are enormous," Larry Norton, deputy chief for breast cancer programs at Sloan-Kettering, told the Associated Press. "And unlike my medical students, Watson doesn't forget anything."

Built as a collection of 90 IBM Power 750 servers, Watson can process the equivalent of 1 million books (some 200 million pages of data), analyze what it has looked at, and give precise answers -- all in less than three seconds.

Following the system's "Jeopardy" win last year, IBM inked a deal with health insurer WellPoint to use Watson for suggestions about diagnoses and patient treatment. The companies said they aim for better patient care and lower costs.

I doubt Watson will have any interaction with patients. But if it did, what do you think its bedside manner would be like? And could you imagine a scenario in which Watson would be allowed to tell you that you have cancer?