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February 18, 2011

How might IBM's "Watson" do as a sentecing judge (or a law clerk)?

IBM watson The provocative question in the title of this post is inspired in part by all the discussion of evidence-based sentencing decision-making during the great Toledo sentencing symposium and also by this information technology article headlined "IBM, Nuance to Tune Watson Supercomputer for Use in Health Care."  First, here is part of the "Dr. Watson" discussion: 

IBM will incorporate Nuance CLU speech-recognition applications into the Watson supercomputer to provide information that assists doctors as they make diagnoses.

IBM will continue its longtime collaboration with speech-recognition software developer Nuance Communications to bring the analytics capabilities of supercomputer Watson into the health care field.  Under a research agreement announced Feb. 17, Nuance will feed its CLU (Clinical Language Understanding) applications into IBM's Watson hardware....

Combining the CLU language capabilities of Nuance in a supercomputer such as Watson could lead to the next generation of EHRs (electronic health records) and decision-support applications, according to Dr. Eliot Siegel, director of the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Laboratory (MIRTL) at the UMD School of Medicine.  "We believe that this has the potential to usher in a new era of computer-assisted personalized medicine into health care to improve diagnostic accuracy, efficiency and patient safety," Siegel said in a statement....

The supercomputer will be used to help doctors make diagnoses and analyze a vast amount of health care resources, including EHRs and medical journals, in ways that doctors and nurses may not be able to.

"What it can do much faster than a person is collect that information, analyze it and use it as an additional resource this huge array of health care literature or most-recent journals and provide feedback on that information to the physician," Dr. Marty Cohn, associate director for IBM Healthcare Analytics, told eWEEK.

"Just as Watson collects information and understands the questions on 'Jeopardy' — the subtlety of the puns — it looks at the language, understands what it really means and can bring information from the vast array of health care literature that is relevant to the physician's and patient's joint effort to come up with a proper diagnosis," Cohn said....

With Watson's ability to understand natural language and respond in a humanlike manner, it will be able to understand patients' verbal descriptions of their symptoms, such as chest pains or dropping blood pressure, as well as collect medical data from EHRs, physician notes and family history to help doctors make recommendations on a patients' condition, Cohn explained.

Watson will also prove helpful in spotting potential drug interactions and highlighting missing test results, according to IBM.  In addition, the supercomputer can guard against the bias of a particular doctor's past experiences.  Information overload from all the resources available contributes to 15 percent of inaccurate diagnoses, according to Harvard Business Review.  For Watson, however, the more data it's fed, the smarter it will get, Janet Dillione, Nuance's executive vice president and general manager of health care, told eWEEK....

Watson won't replace doctors, just provide additional relevant information for them to make diagnoses in a timely manner, Cohn stressed.  In fact, Watson may not be used in emergency rooms, a setting where time is life or death, he added.

"Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient," Dr. Herbert Chase, professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a statement. Watson could help doctors personalize treatment according to a patient's needs, Chase added.

Though there are, obviously, lots of differences between diagnosing a patient and sentencing a defendant, there are also lots of similarities.  Judges considering how to sentence a particular offender who has committed a particular offense — as well as prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers considering what sentencing recommendation to put forward — need to collect lots of factual and legal information, need to analyze and assess this data, and need to consider a huge array of sentencing data and criminal justice literature in order to  discharge their sentencing responsibilities. 

Is it crazy to imagine a "Judge Watson" — or, perhaps more properly, a "Sentencing Law Clerk Watson" — that could and would regularly provide additional relevant information to help make sentencing decisions?  Especially as more and more researchers and public policy advocates talk about the importance and value of "evidence-based" sentencing practices, I do not think it is that crazy to imagine cutting-edge computer technologies helping to collect and assess the evidence needed to engage in these practices.

February 18, 2011 at 03:33 PM | Permalink


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Any sentencing computer should not be immunized. Errors in data or in programming should be liable in torts.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 19, 2011 9:03:43 AM

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