By Michael L. Millenson

Game Show Watson wants to be a doctor. Well, almost.

Fresh off a commanding victory on Jeopardy, IBM will try to demonstrate that the combination of advanced natural language processing and sophisticated algorithmic decision-making capabilities involved in its extraordinary Watson computer can help humankind, not merely humiliate human competitors.

As I wrote on a previous blog, IBM began eying the medical marketplace more than 45 years ago. IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr. – son of the IBM CEO for whom this computer was named – put it this way in 1965: “The widespread use [of computers]…in hospitals and physicians’ offices will instantaneously give a doctor or a nurse a patient’s entire medical history, eliminating both guesswork and bad recollection, and sometimes making a difference between life and death.”

Now, IBM is ready to turn that vision into reality. At heart, Watson is the world’s most sophisticated question-answering machine. The company is collaborating with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. IBM will also work with Nuance Communications, Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, “possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.” For Nuance, it could be a major business line, and promises to carry over in the not too distant future to the mobile phone market, such as Apple’s iPhone, where Nuance is a major presence.

The “physician’s assistant” designation should assuage a profession long suspicious of any brain other than its own. In 1973 – four years after computers helped land a man on the moon – an article in the Wall Street Journal declared that computerized medicine was spreading “at an unprecedented rate.” But the piece ended by acknowledging that “many physicians are openly hostile to the whole concept of computer medicine, fearing that the machine may one day usurp duties.”

The article was entitled, “Doctors’ Helpers: Computers Play an Increasing Role in Diagnosing and Recommending Treatment of Medical Problems.”

These days, says Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Warner Slack, one of the early pioneers in medical informatics, is fond of reminding physicians to prove that they’re not merely human memory sticks. Says Warner, “Any doctor who can be replaced by a computer should be.” And, indeed, the University of Maryland physician working on the Watson project reportedly refers to the computer as a peer, as in “Dr. Watson.”

But just in case, I have some advice for IBM. Its technology team gave Game Show Watson a rich, pleasing baritone voice. Physician Assistant Watson? Forget the sound of a world champion Jeopardy star. Instead, think about a pleasing, deferential, higher-pitched voice, the experienced and trustworthy nurse who knows her stuff, but also knows her place. Watson, can you say, “Yes, Doctor”?