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After trouncing "Jeopardy!'s" best and brightest, International Business Machines Corp.'s (IBM) Watson supercomputer is on to a new challenge--health-care.
IBM said it has reached a research agreement with Nuance Communications Inc. (NUAN), a provider of speech-recognition technology, to "explore, develop and commercialize" the Watson computing system's advanced analytics capabilities in the health-care industry.
Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine will be providing their medical expertise and research.
Watson, powered by 90 servers and 360 computer chips, was built over the past four years by a team of IBM researchers who set out to develop a machine that could quickly answer complex questions involving puns and wordplay.
The room-sized system competed against former "Jeopardy!" champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter for three nights this week, finally winning the challenge Wednesday with a score of $77,147. Jennings finished with $24,000 and Rutter had $21,600. The victory nets Watson a total prize of $1 million, which IBM will be donating to charity. Jennings and Rutter get $300,000 and $200,000, respectively, with plans to donate half to charities.
After optimizing Watson for "Jeopardy!" play, IBM researchers are working to apply the system to business uses, such as helping physicians and nurses find answers within huge volumes of information. A doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could use Watson's analytics technology along with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding offerings to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases and latest knowledge in medical journals to gain information from more potential sources then previously possible, making the physician more confident in the patient's diagnosis, IBM said.
"Combining our analytics expertise with the experience and technology of Nuance, we can transform the way that health-care professionals accomplish everyday tasks by enabling them to work smarter and more efficiently," Dr. John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, said in a press release.
IBM and Nuance expect their first commercial offerings to be available in 18 to 24 months.
Katharine Frase, one of the IBM researchers working on business applications for Watson, said in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires that IBM is considering expanding Watson to other uses such as call centers, knowledge management and training of new employees in technical fields, financial sector applications and law--though she noted it is uncertain if there's a business model to support the law application.
"First we figure out the characteristics of uses that need the technology," Frase said. "Then we figure out a business model, how we deliver the service and who's the customer...Not every business problem needs Watson."
She said IBM has been fielding calls from clients, asking if Watson can help with their problems.
IBM expects some customers will want to build versions of Watson behind their own firewalls, while others will want to access its capabilities as a cloud-delivered service.
"There's a lot we don't know right now," Frase said. "We'll start with the medical realm and learn as we go along."
-By Shara Tibken, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2189; firstname.lastname@example.org