You may recall last February, when IBM’s Watson supercomputer stomped on its competition – two of Jeopardy's all-time top winners – to claim the prize for being fastest on its feet with answers to any and all questions.
The challenge Watson's creators needed to address was the ability to recognize natural language queries, with all its idioms, slang phrases, indirect allusions and even puns. The system performed well on the game show (except when, for some reason, it identified Toronto as a U.S. city).
Of course, IBM didn't put all its time, talent and money into a machine that could win big on the game-show circuit—though it seemingly could be a lucrative source of revenue. No, the applications for strictly business purposes could be fascinating.
In fact, the first company to adopt Watson technology is in the insurance sector. WellPoint, a health insurer, wants to put Watson to work helping physicians with their diagnoses. As the IBM-WellPoint announcement put it: “New solutions incorporating Watson are being developed to have the ability to look at massive amounts of medical literature, population health data, and even a patient's health record, in compliance with applicable privacy and security laws, to answer profoundly complex questions."
As WellPoint's Chief Medical Officer Sam Nussbaum put it: “Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient's medical care -- symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies. Then, imagine using Watson's analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, all of the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge found in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment."
IBM says Watson can sift through “an equivalent of about 1 million books or roughly 200 million pages of data, and analyze this information and provide precise responses in less than three seconds.”
Even if you are not a health insurance carrier, could your company use these types of capabilities? The good news is the cost of storage and computing power will only keep going down, so “Watson-lite” machines will be available to many carriers. What kinds of questions could Little Watson answer? Consider the possibilities, from fraud detection to taking in social media data to better assess conditions on the ground after a natural disaster. Or, if a natural disaster is looming, Watson could quickly answer questions about policyholders that may be in its path – and even contact those customers to let them know the company is standing by for their needs.
Just don't ask the system to distinguish between policyholders in Chicago and Toronto, yet.
Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.
Readers are encouraged to respond to Joe using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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