For Watson, Health IT's Elementary

Watson, the smarty-pants IBM computer that put game-show legends Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter to shame last week on Jeopardy!, may soon be making its way to doctors' offices.

IBM is developing virtual physician assistants using the same technology as the game-show wizard, a supercomputer programmed to navigate the nuances of human speech and respond to questions. In physician-assistant mode, Watson would be able to answer doctors' questions, the computer maker says in a news release.

IBM is collaborating with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to develop the prototype. Nuance Communications Inc. is working to add a voice-recognition feature. In as little as 18 months, doctors could have their own Watsons to help with the diagnosis and treatment of patients, the computer maker says.

Watson employs "deep question answering," "natural language processing" and "machine learning" capabilities, according to IBM. Nuance will add speech recognition and "clinical language understanding" to the computer's bag of tricks.

Basically, the Watson assistant would be able to quickly scan vast reams of medical information ranging from medical texts to the latest research reported in medical journals, adding detail and context to physician problem-solving.

Columbia researchers will focus on identifying critical medical-practice areas in which Watson's technology could be integrated. The Maryland researchers are looking at how the technology could interact with medical practitioners "to provide the maximum assistance."

Just don't ask the cyber-assistant about U.S. cities with airports named in honor of World War II heroes and battles. The best answer Watson could come up with was Toronto.

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