IBM's Watson Supercomputer Gets Job As Oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Memorial Sloan-Kettering has partnered with IBM.

ByABC News
March 22, 2012, 1:57 PM

March 22, 2012 — -- "What's the best treatment for Jane's stage-three breast cancer?" the doctor asks. He isn't asking a colleague or a medical student, he's talking to a computer. A supercomputer. A robot of sorts.

This is about to become real life at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The hospital has partnered with IBM to use its Watson supercomputer.

The computer, which is best-known for the way it crushed its human competition on "Jeopardy," can interpret spoken queries and then uses statistical analysis to deliver "evidence-based statistically-ranked responses," says IBM. Watson can read 200 million pages of data in three seconds.

"We have formed a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering to develop tools to help improve decision making for diagnosis and therapy in cancer," Dr. Martin Kohn, IBM's Chief Medical Scientist, told ABC News.

Kohn was clear about one thing: Watson will not make actual decisions. It will work hand-in-hand (or hand-in-massively-parallel-processors) with doctors.

"What Watson can do is read and understand huge volumes of information. There is so much information being developed in health care in general, and oncology in particular, that the ability to understand all the information out there is becoming progressively more challenging. What Watson does is bring information to the doctor."

The Watson version being designed for the hospital works similarly to the way it played "Jeopardy." When it is asked a question, it will provide suggestions -- one in which Watson feels most confident. and then some strong alternatives.

However, Memorial Sloan-Kettering is feeding Watson more information than it got on "Jeopardy," and that comes in the way of patients' medical backgrounds. Watson is learning the hospital's advanced electronic medical records system, making it even smarter and able to make very strong recommendations based on patients' backgrounds.

"We are going to work with the machine and teach the machine how to make medical decisions," Memorial's Dr. Larry Norton told ABC News. "It's going to take not only molecular disease and clinical research findings into account but also the patients' social and psychological situations and patients' expressed wishes, lifestyle -- all that comes into play when making a high quality medical decision."

Wellpoint, an insurance company, also hired Watson last year to guide treatment decisions for members.

The Watson computer, pictured to the left, doesn't physically make its way into the hospital, but it will be accessible to doctors via their computers. They will be able to speak to Watson when it is fully rolled out.

Right now, IBM and Memorial Sloan-Kettering are working to feed Watson loads of oncology information. Both expect it to be a process that will evolve over the next year.

So how's Watson performing so far in Dr. Norton's eyes?

"We are starting with the smartest medical student we have ever had," he said.

ABC News' Andrea Smith contributed to this report.