IBM hopes that in about two years, Watson can be tweaked and go commercial to help hospitals and physicians take data from electronic health records (EHRs) and churn it into predictive modeling to determine the most likely outcomes from various treatments.
While there are many hurdles to achieving that goal -- such as the continuing lack of widespread EHR deployment -- Watson could one day save untold dollars and lives, IBM hopes.
Cost shouldn't be a significant factor as Watson is relatively cheap compared to medical technology routinely purchased by healthcare organizations.
The Watson supercomputer that appeared on Jeopardy last week was made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by 8-core processors -- four in each machine for a total of 32 processors per machine. The servers are virtualized using a Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.
According to Tony Pearson, master inventor and senior consultant at IBM, a Power 750 server retails for $34,500. Thus the 90 that make up Watson would cost about $3 million.
"That's not bad. You're going to spend $3 million on an MRI machine," Pearson said. "If you look at how expensive hospital equipment is, cost is not the issue."
A hospital, or even physician's office, doesn't necessarily have to buy the full clustered Watson computer system. The original compute algorithm single threaded on a single core processor took two hours to scan memory and produce an answer to a question. IBM technologists just added 2,880 CPUs, which produced the ability to answer the Jeopardy questions in three-seconds.
If a hospital or physician is willing to wait 30 seconds for an answer, then you'd only need one-tenth of that compute power or nine machines.
"So you're in the $300,000 range," Pearson said. "It's quite possible [to wait two hours] if you run it on your Power 750 at home. I'd bet there are some people who'd say, 'heck, I can't even get my doctor to call me back in two hours.' I think it's reasonable that larger hospital systems will have the bigger machines and smaller hospitals might settle for waiting a little longer for an answer."
"Watson seems amazing, but I'm not sure how it can take all that unstructured data and process it," said Marc Probst, CIO of Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, which services close to half the population of Utah.
Probst said he's skeptical because Watson's structured database is very dissimilar to the unstructured data in an EHR format.