Jude Law & Robert Downey Jr as Dr. Watson and Sherlock HolmesIBM’s Watson is moving from being a TV personality on Jeopardy to becoming a medical librarian and physician’s assistant. His data base is being prepared to assist in diagnosis and treatment of illness. "Doctor Watson" will no longer refer only to a fictional detective?s sidekick or a Windows debugging program.

By analyzing a patient?s medical history and symptoms, Watson, the supercomputer, is expected to come up with potential diagnoses and suggest possible treatments. Somewhat like watching TV?s House M.D. without the adiction to painmeds. Watson will draw on textbooks and journals of the medical profession stored in its memory banks. Medical students, in a reverse move, are preparing tests for Watson in the form of training questions for what may become their teacher.

Dr Herbert Chase, a medical school professor at Columbia University, is part of a set of experts who are feeding Watson background information. They hope Watson can manage and make use of the deluge of information put out daily by the scientific community. The computer should be able to absorb, analyze, and retrieve that information on the spot better than your family physician.

IBM's Watson: The Future of (Medical) Computing

IBM’s Watson: The Future of (Medical) Computing

In addition to the scientific data, Watson will be given anecdotal comments from patients regarding their treatments. Chase explained: "We certainly listen when our patients talk to us, and that’s anecdotal." Blogs often provide experiential comments that aren?t publicized in formal settings from patients under a particular treatment or who are taking a specific drug. Watson will also take advantage of this source.

This is how it looks: IBM Watson System
IBM Watson System is consisted out of 10 racks with 90 Power 750 Servers.

Keeping up to date on the latest findings will be a breeze for the computer, whereas it?s nearly impossible for even a team of physicians to stay current. When fed information about a patient, Watson will offer medical professionals a hierarchy of possible diagnoses ranked by its level of confidence in the answer. From there, the doctors can proceed with a treatment plan or begin ruling out the more unlikely choices.

Chase hopes doctors will be more open to exploring all paths when given a list of possibilities. "If a person has a 95 percent chance of having disease X, there’s still a one-in-20 chance that they have something else," he said. "We often forget what’s in that 5 percent. But Watson won’t."

Cost will influence whether hospitals will employ Watson?s capabilities. Dan Pelino, IBM?s general manager for global health care, assured clients that they won’t have to buy a complete Watson system. They may simply be able to access its database via cloud computing, and even using speech recognition technology rather than keyboarding.

Thomas Watson, Former President of IBM with the original System 360. Picture credit: Marvin Koner/CORBISSome, however, are saying Watson isn?t anything new. A similarly functioning computer named Isabel has been in use for almost a decade. She takes in symptoms and gives out possible diagnoses. She includes entry level pricing that even a family practice could afford, and is in use in several hospitals. Jason Maude, co-founder of Isabel Healthcare named his computer after a person also ? his daughter who suffered through a misdiagnosis.

The newest supercomputer, named after IBM’s former president Thomas Watson, works with complex algorithms. It outperforms Deep Blue, an earlier IBM supercomputer that played chess and beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Watson is comprised of two units of five racks each. Each rack has 10 IBM Power 750 servers. It is said to be equivalent to 2,800 powerful computers with a memory of 15 trillion bytes. IBM has plans to invest $100 million for the extension of Watson-like Technology.

To see what powers Watson, click here.