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IBM Watson to help docs examine cancer patients in Korea

[THE INVESTOR] Computers have already proved that they can outpace human intelligence as seen in a high-profile match between Google’s artificial intelligence AlphaGo and Go grandmaster Lee Se-dol earlier this year.

Since then, and even before that, AI has been adopted for many applications such as autonomous cars and mobile gadgets equipped with voice-activated virtual assistants.

Among many, health care is another segment in which AIs is likely to be widely adopted down the road, and the computer system can contribute to upgrading medical services and making quality medical treatments available for more, according to Gachon University Gil Medical Center (GMC), the first Korean medical institute to utilize AI for examining and treating cancer patients.
Robert Merkel, general manager of IBM Watson Health. (IBM)
Robert Merkel, general manager of IBM Watson Health. (IBM)

“The deployment of AI-based Watson in the medical field will make medical services available for more -- which I would refer to as ‘medical democratization,’” said Lee Uhn, the deputy director of the GMC, in a press event for the launch of IBM’s Watson for Oncology on Sept. 8 in Seoul.

“The medical democratization, which could sound a bit grandiose, means saving unnecessary medical costs by providing the right treatment and keeping patients from visiting doctors frequently,” Lee said.

The medical AI, called Watson for Oncology, is a computer application developed in partnership with New York-based Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and it can learn medical science by consuming massive bodies of information in natural language via medical journals and literature.

Based on the combination of the medical knowledge and information of individual patients, it provides personalized treatment options to patients, according to IBM.

Unlike concerns of many, the system will not completely replace the doctors, an IBM executive said.

“I personally believe that Watson will always remain something in an assistive position and it will not be a replacement,” said Robert Merkel, general manager of IBM Watson Health, adding Watson’s endless capacity and huge computing power will support doctors to analyze large bodies of information.

In a bid to improve Watson’s capabilities, the GMC deputy director said it would try to collaborate with the government-run medical agencies in charge of handling the data of patients to make more data of patients available over cloud.

However, the Korean medical law, which is strict on access to the medical data of individuals for privacy reason, remains a hurdle for GMC to work with the state-run agencies.

As to concerns over possible misdiagnosis, or unusual decisions, of the computer system, GMC and IBM said the collaboration between doctors and the computer would have little chance for errors.

“Watson will provide references for its decisions and doctors will definitely look up for them by themselves. If the doctors are still unsure of Watson’s decisions they would seek references from the latest medical journals and reports, and further discuss with their peers,” an oncologist of GMC said.

The Watson system, which is operated via cloud, will be up and running at the Korean medical center from Oct. 15.

By Kim Young-won (