In the past, supercomputers have crunched trillions of numbers seeking to expose the mysteries of cosmology, quantum mechanics, the vagaries of the weather and climate, new forms of aerodynamic flight, exotic substances for materials science applications, and a host of other whizbang-geewhiz breakthroughs.
Now venerable computer icon IBM is planning to task one of the world's most advanced supercomputers to a mission that might just dramatically change the science of medicine and provide a new arsenal of weapons in the decades long battle researchers have fought against an insidious killer: cancer.
In the first project of its kind, IBM has announced a commercial venture to use the number crunching capabilities of so-called "big data" to force breakthroughs in the mystifying maze that has confounded researchers in their quest to unravel the puzzle of cancer and defeat the dread disease once and for all.
The much touted Watson computer that gained television and Internet fame by defeating the Jeopardy! game show's two top human super-champions has been provided about 600,000 snippets of medical data culled from decades of research and trial and error. Added to that wealth of information are some two million related pages of cancer research, studies and oncology trials gleaned from a pot pourri of more than three dozen top medical journals.
The amazing computer, Watson, is named after the founder of IBM, Thomas Watson. According to the company, Thomas Watson's silicon namesake can process an astounding amount of data. Once it hits its stride, Watson can "can ingest tens of million pages of data in just seconds."
The computer giant says the first cancer-related problem Watson will focus on is lung cancer. Watson is being "trained" to hunt down and cull relevant data from a universe of 1,500 lung cancer cases. The supercomputer will analyze and weigh the importance of three primary categories—doctors' notes and annotations, clinical research, and pertinent laboratory results and conclusions—hunting down the clues like Watson's literary friend and mentor, Sherlock Holmes.
Speaking about the revolutionary project, Manoj Saxena at IBM told French news agency Agence France-Presse, "IBM's work with WellPoint and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center represents a landmark collaboration in how technology and evidence based medicine can transform the way in which health care is practiced."
The innovative program is envisioned to be the first of bringing big data capability to major medical issues.
"These breakthrough capabilities bring forward the first in a series of Watson-based technologies, which exemplifies the value of applying big data and analytics and cognitive computing to tackle the industry's most pressing challenges," Saxena said.