Watson is that supercomputer you watched on Jeopardy! in 2011, who competed with Ken Jennings, the longest winning streak holder on said television show (74 consecutive wins), and Bradford Rutter. Rutter holds the record for the second-highest earning American game show contestant of all time. Watson, the IBM supercomputer, would win against Jennings and Rutter, which wasn’t a surprise for many since Watson is one of the most advanced question-answering computer systems on the planet.

Well, what most people don’t know is that Watson isn’t just for the question and answer game shows. Since 2013, Watson has been helping to save thousands of cancer patients’ lives using its powerful software system. But how does a machine help cancer patients? More so, how do they help US military veterans?

The Beginning of Watson

The conceptualization of Watson initially began when IBM was looking to top their successful super IBM computer, Deep Blue. The people over at IBM were brainstorming ways they could beat the capabilities of Deep Blue. Deep Blue notably defeated chess world champion Garry Kasparov in a 6 game-match in 1996. However, the system’s predecessor, Deep Thought, was previously beat by Kasparov in 1989. This meant that there were still gaps in the super computer’s system, meaning it could be improved further despite being considered computer science’s milestone in achieving powerful artificial intelligence.

IBM's Deep Blue Computer at a Computer History Museum (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IBM_Deep_Blue_at_Computer_History_Museum_(9361685537).jpg
IBM’s Deep Blue Computer at a Computer History Museum (Anton Chiang from Cupertino, CA, USACC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

One day in 2004, Charles Lickel, IBM’s Research Manager, was out with several friends and co-workers for dinner when the restaurant suddenly fell silent—Ken Jennings, the record holder for most wins on Jeopardy! had just come up on the television.

This is where his Eureka moment came. He thought, why not build a computer that can participate in a game of Jeopardy! and try to dethrone human players? He passed the idea to IBM Research Executive Paul Horn and supported Lickel in his pursuit. However, not many staff at IBM were particularly excited about working on the project itself. Many of them knew about Deep Blue’s success and thought it would be tough to program a computer to participate in a question-and-answer game show. Admittedly, they knew that the game of Chess was much more simple to code than programming a computer to respond to questions. Keep in mind that it was 2005, and Siri or Alexa was out of grasp in their age.

Heading Into The Game

Eventually, David Ferrucci, IBM’s Senior Manager for Semantic Analysis and Integration, would take up the challenge. His team’s goal was not quite simple. They needed to develop a computer that could use a buzzer, analyze questions, and answer that question in a format Jeopardy! uses, in only a matter of seconds. Yup, that was definitely a tough cookie to crack!

David Ferrucci, IBM's Head for Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at Birmingham University (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_Ferrucci_speaks_at_TEDx_Binghamton_University.jpg
David Ferrucci, IBM’s Head for Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at Birmingham University (Jonathan HeislerCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Eventually, they garnered success! From 2007, they were given 3 to 5 years with only 15 people to build the supercomputer. John E. Kelly III stepped in as IBM head and spearheaded the campaign together with Ferrucci to be ready by 2010. By the end of this timeline, Watson could now read over 200 million pages of content and could process 500 gigabytes or 1 million books per second.

In 2011, the series of matches would commence with Watson winning against Rutter and Jennings every time. Watson had won $1 million. However, IBM did not keep this money and instead donated 100% of it to the World Vision and the World Community Grid.

It was here that it was revealed that Watson’s actual functionality is for medical diagnosis, business analytics, and technology support. An absolutely great way of making use of a complex computer!

Watson The Vet Helper

In his final State of the Union address in 2016, Former President President President Barack Obama had asked former Vice-President (and now President) Joe Biden to lead the Cancer Moonshot project. This national research program could accelerate research for cancer treatments. This comes after Biden’s son, Beau, died because of cancer and after Congress had passed the 21st Century Cures Act.

This project is part of the National Cancer Moonshot initiative, where the goal was to invest over $1 billion in cancer research. These funds were distributed to the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, and most notably, the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also gained inspiration from former President Nixon’s initiatives to fight cancer back in 1971, signing the National Cancer Act.

Today, IBM’s Watson has 40,000 customers around the world, 10,000 of which are military veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs public-private partnership. In 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs and IBM Watson Health extended this partnership to help interpret cancer data to continually treat veterans, consisting of over 3.5% of the US cancer patients.

IBM's Watson super computer pictured in its facility (venturebeat.com). Source: https://venturebeat.com/2014/08/27/ibm-finally-opens-up-its-watson-supercomputer-to-researchers/
IBM’s Watson supercomputer pictured in its facility (Image: Clockready/VentureBeat). Source:

How does it exactly help? First, oncologists and pathologists obtain a tumor sample from any patient and analyze the tumor. The tumor is then checked for its genomes with the help of Watson, who checks for sequences within the cancer’s DNA to determine what mutations are present in the cancer patient. The doctors then use the information to treat veterans with cancer to target those specific mutations, ultimately helping save their lives. This alleviates patients from having to go through multiple tests and medication to identify what mutations their cancer has, which can be extremely costly and stressful.

Today, the Moonshot Initiative has 240 research projects and 70 cancer initiatives, improving immunotherapy, learning more about childhood cancers, and how to prevent cancer.

While Watson cannot treat cancer patients, it has helped researchers and doctors alike save vets who have cancer. IBM has recently sold portions of Watson Health after seeing and hearing reports that Watson’s functionality in healthcare was more complex than initially thought. Francisco Partners, a private equity group, has purchased databases and analytics tools such as Health Insights, MarketScan, Clinical Development, Social Programme Management, Micromedex, and other imaging and radiology tools.

Has Watson been a help to cancer patients at large? Yes, it has, however many observers had said that the revolutionary process Watson claimed to be for cancer is nowhere near that. The Moonshot Initiative is still ongoing. However, it’s unknown whether Watson is still a part of that project. Nonetheless, Watson will be known as a stepping stone for future cancer diagnostics technology in a field called machine learning for cancer patients and veterans all across the globe.