IBM’s Watson could learn how to identify cancer and heart disease from X-rays and MRI scans

xray chestAidan Jones / flickr

IBM’s Watson, the artificially intelligent computer system that bested humans at Jeopardy!, could soon become Dr. Watson.

The computing giant announced plans last week to acquire the medical imaging company Merge Healthcare, Inc. for $1 billion later this year.

IBM plans to train Watson using Merge’s collection of 30 billion images — including X-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans — so that it could help doctors diagnose ailments like cancer and heart disease.

Companies like Google and Facebook are already using artificial intelligence to recognize images of people and objects. They use a technique that involves learning from lots and lots of examples, known as deep learning. And these same techniques, they believe, could be used to look for tumors.

“The planned acquisition bolsters IBM’s strategy to add rich image analytics with deep learning to the Watson Health platform — in effect, advancing Watson beyond natural language and giving it the ability to ‘see,'” IBM representatives wrote on the company blog.

Medical images make up the bulk of data in the healthcare world, accounting for at least 90% of all medical data to date, IBM researchers estimate. That’s an enormous amount of data, and most doctors don’t have the tools to deal with it all.

IBM plans to have Watson compare this wealth of images to lab results, electronic health records, genetic tests, clinical studies, and other types of medical information to develop personalized diagnoses and treatment for patients. Merge’s clients will be able to compare a patient’s latest medical images with their medical image history, as well as with those of patients with similar conditions, to help detect abnormalities or even potential signs of disease.

This is not Watson’s first foray into the medical world. Last fall, IBM announced that it was putting Watson to use to accelerate scientific discoveries by scouring massive amounts of studies.

And Watson has also dipped its feet into the realm of cancer treatment. In May, IBM partnered with 14 US and Canadian cancer institutes that will use Watson to develop personalized therapies based on a tumor’s genetic fingerprints.

The brainy computer program can take in and remember much more information than even the best human doctor, and some people think it could soon surpass our physicians. “I’m convinced that if it’s not already the world’s best diagnostician, it will be soon,” MIT’s Andrew McAfee, coauthor of The Second Machine Age, told Smart Planet last year.

But Watson still faces some limitations when it comes to how useful a service it will be.

“In medical data, there’s lots of ambiguity and lots of fuzziness,” John Eng, an associate professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins University, told the Wall Street Journal, and he thinks that will be a limiting factor for Watson. “It’s a way off to have a general diagnostic machine,” he added.