From Jeopardy! to Jaundice: The Medical Liability Implications of Dr. Watson and Other Artificial Intelligence Systems

AuthorJessica S. Allain
From Jeopardy! to Jaundice: The Medical Liability
Implications of Dr. Watson and Other Artificial
Intelligence Systems
In the not so distant future, medical mysteries will crumble in
the face of a more efficient, less dysfunctional Dr. House.1 Imagine
that a patient walks into an emergency room with a wide spectrum
of symptoms. Rather than subject the patient to an infinite battery of
tests, the patient is sent to Watson, a medical supercomputer with
borderline artificial intelligence.2 Watson analyzes the patient’s
genome, reads the patient’s lifetime medical record, and searches
through the entire body of medical knowledge, including the most
cutting-edge research, to determine the likeliest diagnoses and most
promising courses of treatment.3 In a matter of seconds, Watson
compresses a process that normally takes an ordinary physician
weeks to accomplish.4
Copyright 2013, by JESSICA S. ALLAIN.
1. House is a popular TV drama featuring Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory
House, a gifted but troubled physician who solves a different medical mystery in
every episode. House M.D., THE INTERNET MOVIE DATABASE , http://www (last visited Oct. 25, 2011).
2. Watson is named after International B usiness Machines Corporation’s
currently lacks true artificial intelligence, his ability to lea rn by favoring more
successful algorithms over less successful algorithms shows the rudimentary
beginnings of artificial intelligence. Id. at 150. This Comment focuses on the issue
of emerging artificial intelligence technologies in the healthcare industry.
3. Video, Experts and IBM Insiders Break Down Watson’s Jeopardy! Win,
at 17:40–20:46, TED BLOG (Feb. 18, 2011),
-and-ibm-insiders-break-down-watsons-jeopardy-win/. Although researchers have
not commented on the possibility of Watson using a patient’s personal genome to
further enhance diagnosis and treatment, it is reasonable to suppose that this
development may occur in the future. IBM has already developed Blue Gene, a
supercomputer designed to analyze the human genome. Blue Gene Watson, IBM, (last visited Mar.
8, 2013). Further, personalized medicine is trending nationally, which includes
eventually incorporating an individual’s personal genome into his electronic
medical records. Scott Megill, Personalizing Medicine with Genetics, A SMARTER
PLANET (July 15, 2011), /personalizing-
medicine-with-genetics.html. Many leading researchers are currently working on
making individualized medicine based on each individual’s genetics a reality.
Video, Richard Resn ick: Welcome to the Genomic Revolution, at 6:30–:50,
TED.COM (Sept. 2011),
_the_genomic_r evolution.html.
4. Video, A System Designed for Answers, at 0:15–:31, IBM, http://www- (last visited Apr. 8,
2013), available at
Just down the hall in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), another
Watson station alerts the medical team that micro-changes in a
patient’s biochemistry indicate that a secondary infection will likely
present itself within a few days. Because Watson can monitor
millions of data points and vital signs related to the patient by
interfacing directly with medical monitoring equipment, the
patient’s outcome can significantly improve with faster detection
and treatment.5 In the clinic next door, a third Watson unit is
working with a soldier thousands of miles away in war-torn
Afghanistan.6 Watson can help lead less qualified healthcare
professionals through specialized treatment, expanding the ability of
limited military resources.7
Although International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)
developed Watson to play Jeopardy!, a healthcare team from
Columbia University is currently repurposing “him” to diagnose
patients, suggest treatments, and answer medical questions.8 Watson
5. Researchers have discussed the possibility of integrating Watso n into
other equipment to further his ability to gat her information. Experts and IBM
Insiders Break Down Watson’s Jeopardy! Win, supra note 3, at 12:10–:51.
Integrating Watson into electronic medical monitoring equipment is one
possibility where this could be used.
6. Although researchers have not focused on Watson’s potential for
telemedicine, this would be a natural development for IBM because it has a
research department focused on expanding telemedicine services. Focus on . . .
Telemedicine, IBM (last visited Mar. 8, 2013),
/odis/odis.nsf/pages/focus.08.html. Researchers are planning to integrate Watson
into other technologies to ex pand his ability. Experts an d IBM Insiders B reak
Down Watson’s Jeopardy! Win, supra note 3, at 12:10–:51, 15:53–16:55.
7. The ability to provide medical services from a distance will also be vital
for recovery response to natural disasters or anywhere else with a shortage of
healthcare providers. See Jonathan M. Teich, Michael M. Wagner, Colin F.
Mackenzie & Klaus O. Schafer, The Informatics Response in Disaster, Terrorism,
and War, 9 J. AM. MED. INFORMATICS ASSOC. 97, 101–04 (2002) (discussing the
importance of telemedicine in disaster response and war).
8. IBM has a history of developing new technology around games. In 1997,
IBM’s Deep Blue computer was the first computer system to beat a grand master
at chess in IBM’s first “Grand Challenge.” BAKER, supra note 2, at 20. IBM’s next
grand challenge came when IBM developed Blue Gene, the world’s first
supercomputer, designed to work on analyzing the human genome. Id. Watson
represents the latest grand challenge. Id. Researchers chose to develop the system
around Jeopardy! because of the advances that would be required in natural
language processing and deep analytics. Id. When Watson competed on
Jeopardy!, he defeated the two greatest Jeopardy! players of all time and won one
million dollars. IBM’s Watson Supercomputer Crowned Jeopardy King, BBC
NEWS (Feb. 17, 2011), news/technology-12491688. Darren
Murph, Columbia Doctors Turn to IBM’s Watson for Patient Diagnosis,
Clairvoyance, ENGADGET.COM (Mar. 24, 2011, 1:01 PM), http://www.engadget
cla/. For the sake of simplicity, Watson will be referred to a s “he” throughout this

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