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IBM's Watson to help conduct months of medical research in just hours

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IBM's Watson computer, which famously beat humans to win the quiz show "Jeopardy," will now help researchers wade through massive quantities of data in search of science breakthroughs, the company says.

A project known as the Watson Discovery Advisor will make the artificial intelligence computer system available to research teams and allow them to sift through massive collections of published data to discover patterns in the information, IBM says.

It's intended to reduce the amount of time required to check hypotheses and yield connections that can advance research in hours or days rather than months, the company says.

"What Watson is very capable at is consuming vast bodies of information," says Rob Merkel at IBM's Watson group in New York.

Discovery Advisor is not necessarily "about getting to an answer, but [rather] gaining insight into a large body of information," he says.

Almost a million scientific papers are published annually, while a typical research scientist may have time to read 300 in that period, making it impossible to stay abreast of an ever-increasing body of scientific material -- at least for a human.

Enter the Watson Discovery Advisor, which can do the reading for a researcher, identifying and presenting useful information that may have lain hidden from human eyes in the massive amounts of data in a deluge of papers.

Available through the cloud, the service will help researchers by ingesting those millions of published scientific reports and other documents such as patent applications, looking for and highlighting connections in the almost overwhelming amount of available material.

Some academic, pharmaceutical and other commercial research centers have already begun utilizing the Watson Discovery Advisor to rapidly create and test hypotheses based on all that data.

As an example, molecular biologist Olivier Lichtarge at the Baylor College of Medicine used the system to automatically examine 70,000 scientific articles about one particular protein, which as a reader of those articles would have taken Lichtarge almost 38 years.

"Watson has demonstrated the potential to accelerate the rate and the quality of breakthrough discoveries," he says.

That's exactly what is intended, says Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of the IBM Watson Group.

"We're entering an extraordinary age of data-driven discovery," he says. "We're empowering researchers with a powerful tool which will help increase the impact of investments organizations make in R&D, leading to significant breakthroughs."

The Watson Discover Advisor will be useful in any field where research requires deep insight into a large body of information and protocols, IBM says.

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