IBM’s artifical intelligence program Watson is helping medical research

It might not have the charm of Martin Freeman, but IBM’s cognitive computing program Watson could even out-think Sherlock Holmes. Three years ago, it beat US quiz show Jeopardy’s most successful contestant of all time, Ken Jennings. In future, it could help cure diseases.

This week, scientists from the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas published a study describing their work with Watson to discover new avenues of cancer research. A protein called p53 is implicated in more half of the different types of cancer, and they wanted to come up with new ideas of how best to target it.

They asked Watson to look through 70,000 academic papers about p53, and it quickly picked out six other proteins that may be involved in activating it that would be a good focus for research – a pattern it would have taken humans much longer to recognise. (As Co-Exist reports, IBM research scientist Scott Spangler said that it takes humans about a year to identify one potential research goal.)

Watson’s quick thinking could also help drug companies develop new treatments. Sanofi has the program sifting through research to see if its existing medications could have other uses, while Johnson & Johnson is using it to compare the usefulness of different treatment options. It takes the program minutes to do what would take a person hours, and with less chance of errors.

And it’s not just sifting through data looking for specific words: Watson understands sense and meaning and can interpret information from anything from a tweet to a diagram. As researchers teach it more about the world, it becomes increasingly ‘intelligent’.

Yesterday, IBM held a presentation in New York to show off the program’s abilities and highlight its possible uses. They emphasised that it has all kinds of applications that could improve our lives – including healthcare, finance, and law enforcement, where Watson could one day be able to detect patterns from different types of data to help police to catch criminals. Less life-or-death, but still useful, Watson has also learned how to cook, making up new recipes that were debuted at SXSW earlier this year.

We should probably all feel at least a little threatened by Watson’s brainpower. But if one day I’ll be able to outsource my thinking to a computer so I can take a daily nap, I’m not going to be complaining too much.

Diane Shipley