March 05, 2013, 1:42 PM — IBM's Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer, Watson, may have started out the size of a master bedroom, but it will eventually shrink to the size of a smart phone, its inventors say.
The supercomputer is currently performing "residencies" at several hospitals around the country, offering its data analytics capabilities for diagnosing and suggesting patient treatments.
IBM is also working to program Watson so that it can pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. Yes, the "Dr. Watson" moniker used in the media will someday be applicable.
Even today, a Watson supercomputer with the same computational capabilities as the system that took on Jeopardy!'s all-time champions, is a fraction of its former size. And, the smaller Watson is almost two-and-a-half times faster than the original system, according to Dan Pelino, general manager of IBM's Global Healthcare & Life Sciences business.
"It was the size of a master bedroom, but now it's the size of a bathroom," Pelino said "It will get to be a handheld device by 2020 based on a trajectory of Moore's Law."
By then, Pelino said, he can envision Watson being capable of image recognition sophisticated enough to determine the difference between a life-threatening bug bite and a rash on a child in a developing nation. It could then recommend treatment based on its diagnosis, Pelino said.
It's not so far-fetched, considering IBM has allocated $7 billion toward the Watson supercomputer's research and development.
Digesting unstructured data
One area IBM scientists are working to improve with Watson is its ability to process unstructured data - physicians' notes, research published in peer-reviewed medical and science journals, radiological images, biofeedback from wireless monitoring devices, and even comment threads from online patient communities. All of that information can be used in the melting pot of data analytics.
"Ninety percent of the world's information has been created over the past 10 years, and 80% of that 90% is unstructured data," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of Watson solutions in IBM's Software Group. "That data needs to be digestible."
Today, Watson is developing its resume working with oncologists at Memorial-Kettering Cancer Center in diagnosing and treating patients.
That project, announced a year ago, follows efforts by IBM and WellPoint to jointly develop applications that will essentially turn Watson into an adviser for oncologists at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles.