At the heart of Watson is a system known as DeepQA. This is not yet for sale, although trials are underway in both health and financial services. DeepQA is the element that allows Watson to answer a question it has never seen before, drawing on what it has learned from a mass of other text that doesn’t directly answer that same question.
“As we speak, Watson is helping nurses to deal with insurance approvals for Wellpoint,” says Saxena. Wellpoint, which insures one in nine Americans, uses its version of Watson to examine patient records and narrow down possible diagnoses. The system draws on Wellpoint’s own guidelines, medical research papers, news reports, and what it has learned from past records and diagnoses. If a patient called in reporting flu-like symptoms, for example, the system might suggest that he actually suffers from allergies, based on medical literature saying that allergies produce similar symptoms, and local news reports of high pollen counts. Nurses reviewing the upcoming appointments are shown a list of five possible diagnoses, similar to the three possible answers Watson generated on Jeopardy.
Another Watson system to help doctors plan cancer treatments, which can be extremely complex, is also in the works, says Saxena. In the next few months, IBM will announce an implementation of Watson in finance, too. “If you’re a bond trader, [foreign exchange] trader, then you have to deal with a lot of information. Bond prospectuses are usually around 60 pages long.”
Hemant Bhargava, a professor of management and computer science at the University of California, Davis, researches the strategy of how new technologies are introduced. “There are many levels at which IBM can sell stuff, and it makes sense to use them all,” he says. Analytics is already big business today, but it is growing rapidly as new sectors and businesses adopt it, and Watson can help draw that new business IBM’s way, he says.
Making a success out of software that works the way Watson did on TV will be a longer process, says Bhargava. “None of those will be a slam dunk,” says Bhargava. “There may be complex liability issues around the advice a system gives, and IBM will have to show for certain that it is cheaper and better.”
One obvious area where Watson-like technology could be helpful, but that IBM hasn’t said much about, is social media, Bhargava points out. Investor interest in Facebook, which filed to go public last week, is based on the assumption that the company will find new ways to extract value from the activity of its many users, such as better targeted ads. “There’s so much text out there and a need for smarter analysis,” says Bhargava. “There may be many applications for Watson-like technology.”