Posted by: johnocunningham | March 14, 2013

Will Lawyers Work With or Against IBM’s Watson?

Less than one month after an IBM computer named “Watson” (in honor of IBM’s founder Thomas Watson) snuffed out two human competitors in a game of Jeopardy in late February 2011, I posed the question on this blog as to whether tomorrow’s legal clients might well be consulting the legal version of Watson for answers to legal questions.

Watson is a form of artificial intelligence (“AI”) that can be programmed to “think” through all kinds of information, potentially including statutes, regulations, case law and databanks full of information about individual judges, regulators and other legal decision-makers.

In March 2011, I wrote: “You can bet that IBM will be working on AI solutions to all kinds of business and professional problems, and law firms will have to figure out how to use AI to the client’s advantage, or else risk being replaced by AI solutions that get adopted in-house.”

At the time, I figured this prediction was a bit telescopic, but now I think not.

According to a PR Newswire press release, IBM recently announced that it has partnered with the reputable Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and WellPoint, Inc. (a health benefits insurer and provider) to train Watson in the areas of oncology and medical utilization management, and already Watson has ingested more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence relevant to oncology diagnostics and treatment, as well as 2 million pages of oncology-related text from 42 medical journals. Watson has also absorbed more than 1,500 case files pertinent to lung cancer patients, and is in the process of “learning” to read and apply data from doctors’ notes, patient records, genetic records, and clinical feedback.

Soon, Dr. Watson will be the smartest doctor on the planet, and the good people at Sloan-Kettering see him not as a threat, but an ally in meeting the growing and increasingly complex demands for medical care.

They envision that Watson will – with lightning speed – provide doctors with the best evidence-based treatment options. Dr. Watson will also help to identify treatment options that are geared to the individual patient based on his or her individual cancer cells, medical history, drug tolerance and reactions, and one day soon, genetic coding.

WellPoint professionals similarly envision that Watson will streamline the patient/benefit review process for faster approvals, reduced waste, insuring of the best possible evidence-based care by affiliated medical providers. WellPoint is already deploying Watson to assist with more than 1,600 medical providers in the Midwest, who will be able to utilize Watson’s “Care Guide” capabilities.

So, now the obvious question for lawyers and other professional service providers is: “Who will be the first to partner up with Watson, Esq. to provide better, faster AI service to their clients?” And which dinosaur lawyers will be fighting Watson, insisting that AI can’t do a lawyer’s job, trying to persuade bar associations and legislators to prohibit Watson from practicing law?

Will law firms and other professional service firms work with or against Watson? I don’t know the answer, but I know this. Watson will beat its opponents like a drum, and the service firms who figure out how to work with Watson, instead of against it, will reap the rewards as clients beat a path through their doors !

For a look at where Watson may be going next (in law, medicine and HR) check out another recent PR Newswire press release.

For a quick gander at my prior postings related to Watson, AI and lawyers:




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