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Computer Bests Humans on TV Game Show

'Jeopardy!' champions Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter, right, look on as an IBM computer called 'Watson' beats them to the buzzer to answer a question during a practice round.

'Watson' is now working on assisting doctors and patients

In a three-day competition on the popular U.S. television quiz show Jeopardy, an IBM super computer named Watson faced off against two human contestants and won. The computer proved adept at trivia, on which the show is based.

Watson was not stumped by the show’s unique answer-and-question format in which players get clues in the form of answers and must answer with a question. Watson got its clues via electronic text.

The super computer bested veteran Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in all categories: the arts, popular culture, science, geography, wordplay and more. The computer won by sorting through 80 trillion instructions a second.

With that victory behind it, Watson now heads to the hospital.

Its designer, IBM, has signed agreements with Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Eliot Siegel, vice chairmain of Radiology at Maryland's medical school, says the advances in artificial intelligence embodied in the Watson computer show great promise for medicine.

"With its ability to understand concepts and natural language processing and its ability to form multiple hypotheses and respond very rapidly, holds the promise to be able to explore information in the electronic medical record and also for help with diagnostic and therapeutic planning and just general decision making in medicine."

Siegel adds that Watson’s skills could help doctors and nurses sort through facts and knowledge buried in huge volumes of medical literature published worldwide.

"And having a system that’s able to automatically ingest that information, be able to organize and make that available as a diagnostic aid is really, in my opinion going to significantly enhance not only my ability to make diagnosis, but also enhance the safety and effectiveness of patient care."

But first, Watson will have to tweak its software. Initially it will be trained to organize, synthesize and summarize the vast amounts of medical information that will be fed to it.

"We need to be able to have the Dr. Watson program, unlike the Jeopardy-playing Watson program, be able to form hypotheses and be able to discount information as it's presented with larger amounts of information and be able to find patterns in that. And that’s a more complex task than the task for Jeopardy."

Siegel expects Dr. Watson to begin assisting doctors in that capacity in two to five years.