John H. Watson, M.D. was the foil to Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings. Together, Watson and Holmes created a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. Thomas A. Watson was Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, and his name was immortalized by being a part of the very first telephone call. Bell’s invention ultimately proved to be transformative, to say the least.

Thomas J. Watson was the president of IBM during a period of exponential growth during which IBM became the gold standard in computing. Today, a research institute bearing his name has given us a new and indeed quite different “Watson” namesake. The current Watson is not a person at all, but a supercomputer imbued with artificial intelligence that gives it an almost human-like ability to perceive and interact.

Many learned about Watson from its debut on the game show Jeopardy earlier this year. Watson competed against Brad Rutter, the show’s biggest all-time money winner, and Ken Jennings, holder of the longest winning streak on the program. Over two days, Watson beat them both. This was an amazing milestone for IBM’s “DeepQA” project.

While the entertainment and “gee whiz” value was undeniable, the real-world potential of this technological breakthrough may be a game-changer on a par with – or exceeding – the telephone. Watson’s current challenge is working with medical practitioners to use evidence-based research to help with diagnostic and treatment decisions. For the first time, an industry that is exploding with knowledge and discovery but routinely takes years for best practices to be adopted may have a tool that helps to make that cycle nearly real time.

Watson is being programmed with medical information and physicians at Columbia University, and the University of Maryland are identifying opportunities where Watson can be used. According to reports, when Watson “graduates,” it will be ready to listen to physicians and provide an initial diagnosis as well as identify missing symptoms from current diagnoses.

I’ll take “The Future of Medicine” for $1,000, Alex!

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