IBM’s Watson supercomputer gains the ability to “see” diseases

Watson, IBM’s medical supercomputer, will devote its energy to processing billions of medical images after IBM acquires Merge Healthcare for $1 billion.

Big news for IBM – the tech giant announced on Thursday that it had agreed to purchase Merge Healthcare for $1 billion. According to a report from Tech Crunch, IBM will incorporate the medical imaging company into its Watson Health supercomputer unit. Merge’s imaging technology is currently employed in 7,500 healthcare facilities nationwide.

Merge Healthcare has already processed billions of medical images, including x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans. IBM engineers estimate that almost 90 percent of all medical data is in the form of images, and Merge has processed 30 billion to date.

Watson, IBM’s jeopardy-winning supercomputer, has spent much of its life learning human language and communication, and so far it has done a stellar job.

Now, IBM wants to move Watson’s focus to understanding and processing images and videos. Watson Health endeavors to shift healthcare towards a more data-driven approach, and the IBM supercomputer can help organize the seemingly endless amounts of data that doctors sift through on a daily basis.

Medical professionals deal with a staggering amount of information each day – some records are over a thousand pages long. Medical imaging technology has taken off in the last decade, with cameras becoming smaller, sharper, and less invasive. Doctors can collect images from inside a patient’s blood vessels, and they need a system that can organize and process these images.

Watson has stepped up to the cause, and will devote much of its processing power to images. The computer might be able to automatically detect diseases, make measurements and help recommend the best course of treatment for a patient.

The purchase has not yet been finalized, but it is expected to move ahead before the end of the year, pending regulatory and shareholder approval.

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