For decades, IBM has revolutionized the way computers have interacted with our society, and that work is now reaching into the realm of cancer treatments.
The technology giant’s supercomputer, known as Watson, is now in the process of being groomed to provide assistance for cancer patients, physicians and many others working to fight the disease. Watson was first developed nearly 20 years ago as a supercomputer that combined both analytical abilities and a capacity for understanding human language.
Watson is fed information, which it processes, organizes and retains, and then uses that data to analyze problems, create hypotheses and draw conclusions. From its early days of seamlessly answering volumes of “Jeopardy” trivia, Watson progressed to functioning as a call-center operator and even a hotel concierge. Now, Watson’s creators are upping the ante, setting their sights on using the supercomputer as a clearinghouse for cancer info.
Through a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center, Watson is being programmed with a wealth of information about the center’s leukemia patients — from their demographic info to specifics on individual doctor visits and their lab work and scans — as well as extensive journal articles and more about the disease. The computer then generates recommendations for physicians about possible diagnoses and plans of action.
It’s a pioneering process that Watson’s backers are hoping to expand to other hospitals and specialties. The Watson team envisions the program ultimately functioning as a comprehensive oncology advisor — one that uses its vast base of knowledge about the disease to provide targeted and individualized treatment plans for cancer patients.
Such an ambitious project is, of course, not without its critics. Some worry about giving too much power to a computer, arguing that, like humans, technology is not always error-free. Others have suggested Watson and similar programs could threaten the work of human oncologists, whose profession could be phased out in favor of their technological counterparts.
Despite its uncertain future, the Watson project is sure to be one to watch. Any endeavor that seeks to provide innovative assistance for cancer patients is worthy of a closer look.