Helping with Health Care

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2011-02-17 Print this article Print


The research and technology initiative will combine IBM's Deep Question Answering (QA), Natural Language Processing, and Machine Learning capabilities with Nuance's speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding (CLU) solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of patients that provide hospitals, physicians and payers access to critical and timely information. The two companies expect the first commercial offerings from the collaboration to be available in 18 to 24 months.

Additionally, Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are contributing their medical expertise and research to the project, IBM said. For example, physicians at Columbia University are helping identify critical issues in the practice of medicine where the Watson technology may be able to contribute, and physicians at the University of Maryland are working to identify the best way that a technology like Watson could interact with medical practitioners to provide the maximum assistance.

"We are excited at the prospect of applying the Watson analytics technology to help create the next generation of electronic medical record systems and the next generation of computer diagnostic and decision support tools," Eliot Siegel, director of the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Laboratory (MIRTL) University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in a statement. "We believe that this has the potential to usher in a new era of computer-assisted personalized medicine into health care to improve diagnostic accuracy, efficiency and patient safety."

In its press release on the partnership, IBM said Watson's ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language, and quickly process information to find precise answers can assist decision makers, such as physicians and nurses, unlock important knowledge and facts buried within huge volumes of information, and offer answers they may not have considered to help validate their own ideas or hypotheses.

"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," John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, said in a statement. "This initiative demonstrates how we plan to apply Watson's capabilities into new areas, such as health care with Nuance."

For example, a doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could use Watson's analytics technology, in conjunction with Nuance's voice and CLU solutions, to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature to gain evidence from many more potential sources than previously possible. This could help medical professionals confidently determine the most likely diagnosis and treatment options, IBM said.

"The combination of Nuance's speech recognition and existing Clinical Language Understanding solutions with the power of IBM's Watson technology will introduce unmatched clinical information and analytic technological advancements for healthcare," Paul Ricci, chairman and CEO of Nuance, said in a statement. "The initiative represents a logical step in Nuance's evolution, one that expands our capabilities from recognizing what was said to understanding the intent and providing guidance. The solutions we are developing with IBM will transform the capture, flow and use of clinical data, empowering health care organizations to drive smarter, more efficient clinical and business decisions."

Under the agreement, IBM and Nuance will jointly invest in a multi-year research initiative targeted to the applications of the Watson technology to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients in combination with Nuance's voice and clinical language solutions. In addition, IBM has licensed access to the Watson technology to Nuance. IBM and Nuance are currently engaged in a five-year joint-research initiative designed to advance next-generation natural language speech technologies, the results of which will be commercialized by Nuance. IBM also named Nuance its Preferred Business Partner for speech technologies and related professional services, aimed at complementing IBM's Industry Solutions portfolio.

Meanwhile, industry analysts view Watson as breakthrough technology that will go down in history.

Jonathan Yarmis, an independent industry analyst known as Doctor Disruptive for his focus on disruptive technologies, likens IBM's Jeopardy success with Watson to President John F. Kennedy's pledge of putting a man on the moon.

"When President Kennedy said we're going to put a man on the moon, what he did was took a series of disconnected efforts and gave them a focus and a deadline. That's what IBM did with Watson and the 'Jeopardy!' game. IBM did something that is remarkable and will have manifestations in both predictable and unpredictable ways. The science behind it is remarkable and this was an amazing engineering effort."

Moreover, Yarmis said, "The health care announcement with Nuance is just Step 1. Given Moore's law, in five to seven years this [Watson-like capabilities] is something your standard desktop computer will do. And two years after that it'll be on your tablet and on your cell phones the following year."

David Hill, an analyst with the Mesabi Group, said:

"On the surface, IBM's Jeopardy!-playing computer system Watson is impressive in its ability to answer complex, ambiguous questions expressed in natural language. In fact, Watson will likely be a centerpiece for IBM's centennial celebration in June. But Watson is more than just an impressive computing system. In fact, in the future after Watson's technology is used and deployed in multiple ways, we expect this week's 'Jeopardy!' matches will be seen as a historic event in information technology and big data and analytics that also portends much for society in general."

Darryl K. Taft covers the development tools and developer-related issues beat from his office in Baltimore. He has more than 10 years of experience in the business and is always looking for the next scoop. Taft is a member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and was named 'one of the most active middleware reporters in the world' by The Middleware Co. He also has his own card in the 'Who's Who in Enterprise Java' deck.

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