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You have probably heard all about Watson, the IBM computer that’s capable of understanding natural language that competed early this year in America’s  most popular quiz show against two of the world’s quickest minds.

If you were pinning your hopes on humans getting the better of technology, look away now.  Watson beat Brad Rutter, the biggest all-time money winner on Jeopardy!, and Ken Jennings, the record holder for the longest championship streak (75 days). Watson received the first prize of $1 million, while Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter received $300,000 and $200,000, respectively. Jennings and Rutter pledged to donate half their winnings to charity, while IBM divided Watson’s winnings between two charities.

To his credit, Jennings competed gamely for much of the program, even holding on to the lead for a fair while before the computer got into gear and started to dominate. And to give Jennings even more kudos, he had the good grace to crack a joke, even though The Simpsons got there first. “I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote under his (correct) Final Jeopardy response, which got well-earned laughs from the studio audience.

Tuesday’s show saw the culmination of what we had all feared in light of Monday’s episode vaulting the computer into an early lead. Watson carried on where he’d left off, as Jennings and Rutter only managed only five correct answers (out of a possible 30) during the Double Jeopardy round. And by the time Final Jeopardy had been and gone, Watson had a mighty $35,734 compared to Jennings’s $4,800 and Rutter’s $10,400.

Watson elegantly saw off the puny humans with responses on the likes of Franz Liszt, dengue fever, violin, Rachmaninoff and albinism. Even host Alex Trebek seemed spent: with Watson wanting to wage the extremely specific amount of $6,435 on a Daily Double, the laconic Trebek simply replied, “I won’t ask” (naturally, Watson was spot on here too).

As the game proceeded, even Watson’s guesses were paying off. The 32% certainty over Baghdad being the city from whose national museum the ancient Lion of Nimrud ivory relief went missing in 2003 was correct.

But possibly the ultimate irony (or should that be insult) was that the humans got Final Jeopardy right and Watson didn’t. Jennings and Rutter both knew that Chicago was the response to, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” while Watson went with Toronto. Yet due to only placing $947, Watson had worked out the math and couldn’t lose. At that point, you wouldn’t have blamed the men if they didn’t show up to Wednesday’s finale, despite a cool $1 million being at stake. But show up they did and soundly beaten they duly were.

What Watson Might Do Next?

After conquering puny humans Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter and winning a total of $77,147 over three days and two full games on Jeopardy!, IBM’s know-it-all new supercomputer is going to med school. On Wednesday, IBM, along with Nuance Communications Inc. and the Columbia University and University of Maryland medical schools, announced that they are developing Watson as a diagnostic tool that can help doctors identify diseases and recommend treatments. They hope to begin lab tests as early as next year, with real world testing later in 2012.

“What makes Watson unique is that it can rip through massive amounts of information and give a small amount of possible answers with levels of confidence,” says Dr. John Kelly, IBM’s senior vice president of research.

Doctors have long relied on technology to help them manage patient care — electronically stored patient histories, digital lab results and machines that regulate medication are all commonplace in today’s hospitals. Indeed, the first attempt to create a machine that could help diagnose human illness came back in the 1970s, when Stanford University researchers developed MYCIN — a computer designed to indentify different types of bacteria responsible for infections. But even the most up-to-date systems, which were developed in the 1980s, still require physicians to spend costly time typing in test data and patient information, and still only cover a limited number of diseases.

That’s why doctors like Eliot Siegel, a professor and vice chair at Maryland’s department of diagnostic radiology, says Watson’s capabilities are necessary now. Imagine a supercomputer that can not only store and collate patient data but also interpret records in a matter of seconds, analyze additional patient information and research from medical journals and deliver possible diagnoses and treatments, with the probability of each outcome precisely calculated. “I think it’s going to usher in the next generation of medicine,” says Siegel. “It takes me 20 minutes to an hour or more to read through a patient’s electronic medical record. Having a computer understand and present the information to me is a huge step towards allowing me to make a better diagnosis. It is really the future of medicine.”

Watson’s developers have always had higher goals for the room-sized, multimillion dollar supercomputer than just winning a game show. Its ability to understand natural language makes it a valuable tool in many different applications. Unlike even the most advanced Internet search engines, which can only find results for specific requests, Watson can make connections between words and determine a logical answer from imputed data. For example, if it was given the Jeopardy! clue “This is where Stefani Germanotta was born,” it could infer from the data in its memory banks that where a person was born is also known as a birthplace, and that Stefani Germanotta is actually the real name of Lady Gaga. From the statements “Lady Gaga’s birthplace was in Manhattan” and “The singer of ‘Born This Way’ was born in the Big Apple,’ Watson can correctly infer the answer — New York City. The supercomputer’s ability to recognize the links and associations between terms in different contexts can be further applied to the medical field, especially in the case of doctors who abbreviate or misspell terms and for patients who might not know the correct scientific term for their ailing body parts.

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