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Watson computing going diagnostic soon

IBM, Nuance join in medical system

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / February 17, 2011

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Answer: What is health care?

Question: The industry IBM Corp.’s Watson is targeting after vanquishing its human opponents on the game show “Jeopardy!’’

One day after the Watson computer defeated human champions in a three-day match, its creators and a Massachusetts software company are preparing to sell a medical version of the smart machine.

IBM has an agreement with Nuance Communications Inc. of Burlington to sell Watson-based products to health care providers. Nuance already offers voice-recognition software for a variety of applications. The companies are pitching forthcoming technology that will, among other things, allow medical providers to describe symptoms orally and get diagnostic information in return.

Last night, Watson finished off its flesh-and-blood opponents in the second game of a two-game tournament.

Watson won two games over three nights and got a $1 million prize, which IBM plans to donate to charity. Watson’s opponents, veteran “Jeopardy!’’ champs Ken Jennings and Ken Rutter, won $300,000 and $200,000, respectively.

Capitalizing on the publicity, IBM and Nuance will develop products that combine the technology developed for Watson with Nuance’s speech-recognition and related technologies. They expect the first commercial offerings in 18 to 24 months. Also, Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are contributing expertise and research to the effort.

Watson, the result of four years of work by researchers, was launched to test whether a computing system could rival a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed and accuracy. The “Jeopardy!’’ format was chosen because the game’s clues require analyzing meaning, humor, riddles, and other subtleties.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst worked on Watson’s technology.

Nuance provides its technology to a variety of industries and platforms, including automated call centers, mobile phones, and auto dashboards. But the medical industry is by far its biggest sector, driven by the number of doctors who use its voice-recognition technology to dictate medical records.

Watson technology will enable Nuance to add artificial intelligence to its offerings.

Richard Mack, vice president at Nuance, said the company plans to use Watson technology to help doctors quickly consider reference materials, prior cases, and the latest medical literature.

In the future, Nuance intends to apply Watson technology to other sectors it serves.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.