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IBM on Watson: Our son, the doctor's helper

Big Blue's Jeopardy-winning computer will apply some of its technical know-how to help doctors make better-informed decisions.

IBM Researcher Mike Barborak walks through the WatsonPaths user interface.
IBM Researcher Mike Barborak walks through the WatsonPaths user interface.
Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM

IBM's Watson has snagged a job in the medical field.

After proving its prowess on "Jeopardy" two years ago, the Watson "cognitive" computing system is embarking on two new projects designed to help doctors make more accurate decisions and tap into data from electronic medical records (EMRs).

Known as "WatsonPaths" and "Watson EMR Assistant," the two projects announced Tuesday are a collaboration between Big Blue and Case Western Reserve University's Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine.

WatsonPaths will provide a natural language Q&A technology that doctors can use to diagnose a medical case. Armed with medical literature, training, and clinical guidelines, WatsonPaths can answer questions from doctors to examine a case from different angles, potentially leading to various diagnosis and treatment options. The system is also designed to get "smarter" based on feedback from the doctor.

WatsonPaths will initially be available to students and faculty at the Cleveland Clinic for use in clinical lab simulations.

"The vision is for WatsonPaths to act as a useful guide for students to arrive at the most likely and least likely answers to real clinical problems, but in a classroom setting," J. Eric Jelovsek, director of the Cleveland Clinic Multidisciplinary Simulation Center, said in a statement. "Of course, it is also easy to visualize how this type of technology could eventually be a tool for physicians to use in real-time clinical scenarios -- a powerful guiding reference to consult when diagnosing and identifying the best treatment options."

The Watson EMR Assistant is designed to help doctors collect information from electronic medical records, which contain massive amounts of sometimes-conflicting data. Using natural language queries, doctors will be able to ask the the EMR Assistant to track down and make sense of all the information needed for a particular case or patient.

"Through our research collaboration with Cleveland Clinic, we've been able to significantly advance technologies that Watson can leverage to handle more and more complex problems in real time and partner with medical experts in a much more intuitive fashion," Eric Brown, IBM Research Director of Watson Technologies, said in a statement. "These are breakthrough technologies intended to assist future versions of Watson products."