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IBM’s Watson Goes From Jeopardy Player to Scientist Used by J&J

International Business Machines Corp. wants you to know that its Watson technology can do more than win “Jeopardy!” -- it can now help accelerate scientific research and discoveries.

IBM, in a peer-reviewed paper with Baylor College of Medicine, used the Watson Discovery Advisor technology to map connections within troves of scientific research. The ability to point scientists toward new hypotheses and patterns in data is also being used by Johnson & Johnson to help develop medicines and find additional uses for existing drugs, IBM said in a statement.

Since the “Jeopardy!” win in 2011 proved Watson can answer questions and analyze data in natural human language, IBM has been trying to commercialize the technology by showing how it can be applied to customer service and financial planning. As declining demand for IBM’s hardware has led to nine straight quarters of falling sales, the company has turned to data analytics tools like Watson as a new source of growth.

“We’ve gone from co-creating with these early partners to creating a commercial offering,” John Gordon, vice president of IBM’s Watson Group, said in a phone interview, referring to Baylor and J&J. “In the past we’ve talked about how Watson can help people find answers to things that are known. We are shifting to really helping innovators investigate the great problems of our time.”

IBM has been marketing different uses for Watson since the company spent about $1 billion to create a new business unit around the tool. Financial-services firm USAA said last month it will use Watson on its website to answer military customers’ questions about transitioning back to civilian life -- the first wide-scale test with consumers.

70,000 Articles

Watson’s new science applications identify potentially unknown points of interest about a topic, instead of only finding direct answers to specific questions.

Baylor used the tool to analyze the abstracts of 70,000 scientific articles on a specific cancer-related protein to predict other compounds that may interact with it. Using frequent words to rank and map relationships, the researchers identified six proteins to investigate, more than the one that scientists typically discover in a year.

Johnson & Johnson, whose Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky will join IBM’s board next week, will use Watson to analyze drug data to potentially allow researchers to more quickly ask questions about the effectiveness and side effects of medical treatments.

“This points them to the next great idea,” Gordon said. “It’s kind of Watson becoming a scientist.”

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