Imagine a world where you could have the best doctors available 24 x 7 to answer your medical questions, evaluate your symptoms, and provide an accurate diagnosis for what ails you.  They would have infinite patience and would make house calls.  Science fiction?  Maybe not. A few years ago, IBM researchers developed a technology, dubbed “Watson,” which holds the promise to do just that.

Watson uses artificial intelligence to quickly parse through huge databases of information to find answers to questions posed in natural language by human users.  What is unique about Watson is its ability to understand spoken language and deftly navigate the cultural nuances in speech that we humans process unconsciously every day (Watson’s public debut was on the game show Jeopardy competing against the two all time champions).  IBM has been working with physicians and medical institutions to apply the Watson technology to medical applications–e.g., diagnosing cancer.  In the current vision, Watson would act as an expert assisting physicians in the diagnosis of disease.

IBM Watson: Final Jeopardy! and the Future of Watson

It is not a difficult stretch to imagine that someday Watson might find its (er, his) way into our homes as an app that we could access in real time without the hassle of scheduling visits, driving to a physician’s office, and dealing with the other burdensome aspects of our modern healthcare system.  Perhaps, after a proof of concept period, Watson would be allowed to write prescriptions and recommend treatment plans.

marcus-welbyOne could even imagine that the clever coders at IBM (perhaps working with some ex-pat designers from Apple) could create an app that would allow you to select the personality characteristics of your Watson–e.g., authoritative, but reassuring and friendly (the Marcus Welby persona). You might purchase this “always on” medical expertise much the same way you pay for your water and electricity.

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, and the pace of innovation quickens, this seeming “pipe dream” may be closer than you imagine.  One factor that may work to propel the technology forward is economic necessity.  An aging population coupled with a chronic shortage of physicians is making this scenario more likely.

IBM Watson Health and the Future of Healthcare

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