Cognitive Computing: Revolution's in the Air

06/18/2015 04:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

The first intelligible words spoken over the telephone in March 1876 are reported to be, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." So perhaps it's only fitting new technology that may be as revolutionary for global healthcare shares that surname.

This genuine possibility was strongly demonstrated at the IBM World of Watson conference I recently attended in New York. And it is not surprising that information and communications are at the center of this intriguing advancement.

Watson is the IBM supercomputer most of us know about because it destroyed human champion contestants on Jeopardy. Cognitive computing is what made that possible.

Watson is designed to mirror human learning processes. Moving beyond the first fast-tabulation computer phase and the If/Then era of computing, cognitive computing allows Watson to digest both structured and unstructured data. That means it can take in data from all sorts of sources - say, from electronic patient records to published research on a particular type of small cell cancer to tweets. And Watson can read millions of unstructured documents in seconds.

That's a critical step forward because the pool of data from those sources will continue to grow exponentially. According to IBM, the increasing prevalence of personal fitness trackers, connected medical devices, implantables and other devices that collect real-time information will generate more than 1 million gigabytes of health-related data in each person's lifetime.

Next, Watson organizes that data to make it easier to work with. Trained by human experts, it then learns how to interpret that organized content to quickly expose patterns, connections and insights. Over time, Watson is able to master bodies of information and apply it to improve decision-making.

The ramifications for healthcare should be pretty obvious. Pinpointing patients best suited for clinical trials. Prevention protocols for individuals that are genetically predisposed for glaucoma or heart disease. Speeding new drug development and improving the chances of success. Cracking the code on why patients stop taking their medication. Improved understanding of how a disease impacts a specific ethnic population. The list is long.

It's also not too far fetched to think that Watson-aided humans could become de facto allied health professionals. In essence, Watson is Dr. Watson. Without having to schedule an appointment. Or old magazines in a waiting room. At your fingertips.

Armed with rapid access to answers about and proven treatment for any medical condition -- distilled down from billions and billions of real-world data points by Watson -- why wouldn't it be possible for individuals to finally take charge of their health care?

"The Power of the Purse" study recently confirmed that women are the Chief Medical Officers (CMO) of their families - but CMOs that feel ill equipped to make medical decisions. Why can't Watson solve that challenging conundrum with its insights, real-time feedback and instant recommendations?

And why won't access to all of this highly vetted and analyzed health information, state-of-the-art research and treatment patterns from the world's medical centers of excellence improve communications between patients and health professionals?

Several companies are already creating "Powered by Watson" apps to provide intelligent coaching systems centered on pre- and post-operative care. Others are building apps that allow mobile device access to highly personalized, dynamic care management for people with diabetes and other chronic diseases. More are sure to follow. Stay tuned.

There's revolution in the air. And communications is the cure.

Visit for more information about IBM Watson Health