02/19/2011 05:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is A Physician's Cyber-Assistant Next?

IBM's Watson to be a doctor. Well, almost.

Fresh off a commanding victory on Jeopardy, IBM tactfully titled its knock-out, "Humans Win." That's because the company wants to show that its extraordinary computer can help humankind (and human customers), not merely humiliate mortal competitors.

As I wrote on a previous blog, IBM began eying the medical marketplace more than 45 years ago. IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr. -- son of the IBM CEO for whom this computer was named -- put it this way in 1965: "The widespread use [of computers] ... in hospitals and physicians' offices will instantaneously give a doctor or a nurse a patient's entire medical history, eliminating both guesswork and bad recollection, and sometimes making a difference between life and death."

Now, IBM is ready to turn that vision into reality. At heart, Watson is the world's most sophisticated question-answering machine. The company is collaborating with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician's assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. IBM will also work with Nuance Communications, Inc., famous for its Dragon software on the iPhone, to add voice recognition.

The "physician's assistant" designation should assuage a profession long suspicious of any brain other than its own. In 1973 -- four years after computers helped land a man on the moon -- an article in the Wall Street Journal declared that computerized medicine was spreading "at an unprecedented rate." But the piece ended by acknowledging that "many physicians are openly hostile to the whole concept of computer medicine, fearing that the machine may one day usurp duties."

The article was entitled, "Doctors' Helpers: Computers Play an Increasing Role in Diagnosing and Recommending Treatment of Medical Problems."

There's no doubt physicians are a lot more comfortable around computers these days. In fact, the University of Maryland physician working on the Watson project reportedly refers to the computer as a peer, as in "Dr. Watson." (The most famous Dr. Watson, of course, was John Watson, Sherlock Holmes' companion. This Watson is named after IBM CEO Thomas Watson, Sr.)

Watson, can you say, "Yes, Doctor"?