In 2011, an IBM supercomputer named Watson defeated two reigning champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy, winning the first prize of $1 million. Watson has a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge—more than 15 times Wikipedia—and can process the equivalent of a million books per second.
After its big win, Watson put fame and fortune behind it. The machine is currently churning through case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering as a clinical decision support system, making diagnoses and treatment recommendations. Just as Watson combed through billions pages of data to win Jeopardy, the machine analyzes countless reams of physician notes, published medical books and articles, and data stored online by public-health departments across the globe. This is matched against patients’ specific symptoms and their medical and hereditary histories. Medicine has never before had a tool like this.
Watson is a renowned example of the way technology is changing how people recover. But the overgrown PC has a lot of company—one increasingly important medical device might be in your purse or pocket right now. You can purchase a blood pressure cuff that attaches to your iPhone along with an app that sends the data to your healthcare professional via email. In some cases, the information is automatically entered in your electronic medical record. Other firms are selling devices that allow smartphones to take electrocardiogram readings, measure glucose levels, and even check for STDs.
Some of the latest cutting-edge therapeutic tech sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Within a few years, wounds may be healed by biocompatible remote-controlled circuits called “electroceuticals.” These microscopic devices are inserted into wounds where they release bacteria-killing heat, a form of thermal therapy that destroys even the most drug-resistant microbes. When the work is done, the electroceutical, made from super-thin silk and a microscopic radio transmitter, dissolves. Within a decade, electroceuticals may be used to stimulate nerve and bone growth, heal wounds, deliver drugs, or act as antibiotics.
From supercomputers to microscopic circuits, technology is playing a larger role in the ways we heal.