For IBM's Watson supercomputer, there's more than being a champion at Jeopardy. Early in 2012, medical professionals at WellPoint expect to tap its computer brain to serve 34 million subscribers.
While Watson won't be used to direct heart transplants or even check kids' tonsils, chances are subscribers within WellPoint's various health plans will use Watson technology in the very mundane manner of seeking insurance claims.
We are going after the low-hanging fruit first, Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM's Watson Solutions Group, told IBTimes. We realize any additional payoff for IBM will be in three to five to seven years.
Saxena said Indianapolis-based WellPoint will enjoy complete access to the back-end of Watson, which remains at IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y. In a few locations, employees will tap into the supercomputer's database to obtain information used to pre-authorize releases for medical procedures.
Some of this will include routine checks of the patient's history and prior claims, the IBM industrial engineer and prior VP for Industry & Cloud Business Solutions, told IBTimes. That's culling what's called structured data.
But Watson will also have the smarts to sift through unstructured data, which could lead to other conclusions. Saxena suggested that if a Texas patient complained of a flu-like symptom, the computer might detect an outbreak of ragweed in Texas and ask if the patient had a ragweed allergy.
It's that ability to sift through that kind of unstructured data that offers Watson an extra intelligence for the medical community. IBM also paid a lot to acquire it.
Over the last four years, IBM has spent more than $7.8 billion to acquire database analytics specialists Cognos and SPSS, both formerly public, as well as data warehouse company Netezza, along with other private companies. In the first half of 2011, IBM spending on research and development exceeded $3.15 billion.
Saxena declined to say how much has been spent on developing Watson, whose February 2011 Jeopardy romp attracted worldwide attention to IBM, especially when one of its human opponents, Ken Jennings, appended to his Final Jeopardy answer: I for one welcome our new computer overlords.
Still, assuming a successful rollout with WellPoint, IBM hopes to attract other medical customers especially because it has identified the market for unstructured data as high as $15 billion in the medical sector by 2015.
While health care, an estimated 18 percent of U.S. GDP is a first target, there's no reason why Watson can't be rolled out to other industries, Saxena told IBTimes.
For now, Watson's capabilities seem unmatchable by any other technology company, Saxena said. However, assuming Hewlett-Packard's pending $10.3 billion of Britain's Autonomy concludes, HP might well be poised to challenge Watson in the unstructured data field, he told IBTimes.
Watson is something for us to use as leverage across the portfolio, Saxena added.