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IBM says computer will diagnose your illness

YORKTOWN, N.Y. —Some guy in his pajamas, home sick with bronchitis and complaining online about it, could soon be contributing to a digital collection of medical information designed to help speed diagnoses and treatments.

A doctor who is helping to prepare IBM's Watson computer system for work as a medical tool says such blog entries may be included in Watson's database.

Watson is best known for handily defeating the world's best "Jeopardy" players on TV earlier this year. IBM says Watson, with its ability to understand plain language, can digest questions about a person's symptoms and medical history and quickly suggest diagnoses and treatments.

The company is still perhaps two years from marketing a medical Watson, and it says no prices have been established.

At a recent demonstration for reporters, Watson was gradually given information about a fictional patient with an eye problem. As more clues were unveiled — blurred vision, family history of arthritis, Connecticut residence — Watson's suggested diagnoses evolved from uveitis to Behcet's disease to Lyme disease. It gave the final diagnosis a 73 percent confidence rating.

"You do get eye problems in Lyme disease but it's not common," physician Herbert Chase said. "You can't fool Watson."

For "Jeopardy" Watson was fed encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news, and movie scripts. For health care, it's on a diet of medical textbooks and journals. It could also link to the electronic health records that the federal government wants hospitals to maintain. Medical students are peppering it with sample questions to help train it.

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