Your Next Doctor Appointment Will Be Done by Your Dishwasher

Imagine a medical assistant with the bedside manner of a microwave but the intelligence of 400 Einsteins.

And while you don’t have to pay him, you do  have to pay for him, and he is kind of an energy hog. Is that someone you’d want to have on your staff?


His name is Watson, and he’s one of the most advanced pieces of artificially intelligent software in the world. Whether you’re ready for him or not, he just inked several big deals to make his way into medical care offices across the world.

Watson is one of the biggest projects to come out of the computer giant IBM to date, but it may surprise you to know that Watson was originally developed not for medical practices or physics problems, but to compete on Jeopardy!

Watson was first introduced in 2011 to compete against two of Jeopardy’s biggest winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson had two matches against these human competitors, and amassed $112,881, more than 3 times the earnings of the 2nd place winner Brad Rutter[1]. You can see him competing here:

To put Watson’s power into perspective, consider this[2]:
Watson has access to 4 terabytes worth of data. Compare this to Apollo 11, which used about 4 kilobytes of data. 4 terabytes = about 4 billion kilobytes, which means Watson uses a billion times more data than the first mission to the moon!
Or, for a more modern comparison, the iPhone 5 can store 64 GB worth of data — about 62 times less than Watson’s 4000 GBs.
If you think the storage capacity is insane, look at the processing stats — while the Apollo 11 computer had a 1 megaHertz processor, Watson has a 2,625,000 gigaHertz processing engine.
Again to bring that back to a 2015 comparison, the iPhone 5 works with a mere 1.3 gigaHertz processor.

Apollo 11's guidance computer
Apollo 11’s guidance computer

The leap to practical applications was only natural — if this supercomputer could outplay humans in Jeopardy, what else could it do?

Watson’s first foray into the healthcare field was as a decision support application for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City:

  • When utilizing Memorial Sloan Kettering’s unmatched breadth and depth of experience, gained from treating more than 30,000 patients with cancer every year, Watson will take information about a specific patient and match it to a huge knowledge base incorporating published literature and the treatment history of similar patients. Watson’s ability to mine massive quantities of data means that it can also keep up — at record speeds — with the latest medical breakthroughs reported in scientific journals and medical meetings. Additionally, because it utilizes cognitive computing, Watson continually “learns,” thereby improving its accuracy and confidence in the treatment options it suggests.[3]

That 400-Einstein-sized “brain” of Watson’s is able to take a patient’s unique health profile and tailor both diagnostic and treatment options to deliver the best medical outcome to them. The applications for this kind of decision support are limitless — even the simplest health problems have hundreds of factors that go into their diagnosis and treatments. Watson is able to take a lot of the guesswork out of these medical decisions, reducing the chance of a misdiagnosis or providing the wrong treatment.

So that begs the question — what does this mean for the medical professional?

First of all, you don’t have to worry about robots taking over your job anytime soon. While machines may be better at accessing information, they’re still a long way off from being able to tell patients how to best utilize that information.

Machines also can’t deliver the kind of professional bedside manner or social and moral support that human doctors can. There’s something about talking with a doctor about your medical problem that helps to relieve a lot of stress and anxiety about it.

Despite our best efforts to stay strong in the face of things like cancer and Alzheimer’s, it helps more than we think to hear the calm and collected voice of an experienced physician instead of the cold robotic diagnosis of an advanced supercomputer.

Only time will tell to what extent we’ll see supercomputers and artificial intelligence in your practice and in our lives.

I for one plan on embracing the robot love.

Yours in tech,

Ken Swearengen

P.S. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any greater, it turns out Watson is a philanthropist as well. As the Christian Post reports:
[Watson’s builder] IBM had announced in January that 100 percent of its $1 million prize from “Jeopardy” would go to charity. Half went to World Vision and the other half went to World Community Grid, a nonprofit that seeks to build the world’s largest public computing grid benefiting humanity.