Finally, it could generate a list of the top conditions the patient might be suffering from, along with a list of all the relevant sources.
"What the doctor can do is just consult this and say, 'am I missing anything'? There's a huge amount of information out there," Ferrucci said. "I imagine that it will help the doctor to adjust and refine and rationalize and document both the diagnostic process as well as the treatment process with a lot more confidence."
Watson-like systems may not be as precise as a rule-based sytem working over a specific database, he said, but they can cover a wider collection of information and then make it more digestable for humans.
Ferrucci said the same process could be used by information technology professionals to unravel complicated computer problems.
IBM's immediate challenge might be to best world-champions on "Jeopardy!," but, ultimately, the company is looking to apply Watson's technology to areas as varied as government, engineering and business.
Eric Nyberg, a professor in the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said he hopes the "Jeopardy!" competition will not only open up a conversation with the public about artificial intelligence, but also drive more research in the field.
As far as consumer applications, he said, "I think the logical next stop beyond Watson is going to be systems that can advise you on selecting certain kinds of products that meet your personal needs."
For example, we may not be too far away from a system that could read through all the camera reviews available and then, based on its knowledge of a user's preferences, recommend the best choices, Nyberg said.
The system could be accessed in a retail shop where you would buy the camera, but it could also be accessible through a cell phone, he said.
"We could build applications like that today. For example, if there was a manufacturer that wanted to create a version of Watson that could answer questions about its entire product line that would be a very easy thing to do," he said, adding that the range of trivia and language used in "Jeopardy!" actually poses a more difficult problem.
But though Watson may represent a ground-breaking step in so-called question-answering systems, researchers say it's still not the ultimate goal in artifical intelligence.
"From the science point of view, the goal of artificial intelligence, when it started 50 years ago was to build machines that exhibit human intelligence," said Boris Katz, the principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "One could argue that answering certain questions is part of that but I think it would be especially interesting to build something that not only performs certain tasks but maybe even does it in a way that a human would do it."
Those machines would not just provide answers to questions, but be able to explain how they arrived at the correct answer. And, given the trend toward mobile devices, he said, eventually, those machines will likely find their way into your hands.