Volume 20, Number 8 -- February 28, 2011

IBM, Nuance, and Universities to Commercialize Watson for Medicine

Published: February 28, 2011

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

In the wake of IBM's impressive win with the Watson question-answer machine on the Jeopardy! game show two weeks ago, the company got down to business with some partners to try to commercialize the contraption.

Healthcare, as you might expect, is the first place where IBM is looking to turn Watson on its head and have it answer questions instead of providing them. Medicine is particularly slippery, given the complexity of human chemistry and physiology and the fact that we are all just a little bit different thanks to differences in genetics, environments, and habits. When I talked to David Gondek, one of the key researchers behind the Watson Q-A system, ahead of the Jeopardy! showdown, he told me that IBM expected that it would take about two years to commercialize Watson in the medical field. Gondek did not elaborate on how IBM might do this. And part of the reason no doubt is that the product managers and marketeers in the Systems and Software Group (created last year from the merger of the software and hardware businesses at Big Blue) are in charge of the commercialization of Watson, not the techies at IBM Research who created it.

As it turns out, Nuance, which owns the popular Dragon speech recognition software, has already created a clinical language understanding (CLU) engine that can not only record and transcribe what doctors say to it as they discuss their patients, but can also cope with structured and unstructured data and put that data into patient records. (You can check out the CLU system here.) IBM and Nuance are going to plug this CLU front end into a clone of Watson and start feeding it medical data. The goal is to have a commercial product--my guess is that it will be a service that many physicians will share--out the door in 18 to 24 months.

IBM and Nuance are tapping doctors at Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to figure out the best way to integrate a Doctor Watson--well, what else would you call it?--into the rounds that doctors make as they treat patients.

Under the deal, IBM and Nuance have a multi-year medical research project, and IBM has granted Nuance access to key (and unnamed) technology from the Watson Q-A system. Nuance is also now a preferred business partner, and the two companies have a five-year deal to work on natural language processing technologies, which will be commercialized by Nuance in future Dragon and related products and, presumably, also embedded into IBM products. Like robo call centers that are really powered by robots, not just humans that have to behave like them to get their paychecks.


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Victor Rozek,
Jenny Thomas, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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