“In a busy medical practice, if you want help from the computer, you really don’t have time to manually input all that information,” he said.

Siegel says Watson could prove valuable one day in helping diagnose patients by scouring journals and other medical literature that physicians often don’t have time to keep up with.

Yet the skills Watson showed in easily winning the three-day televised “Jeopardy!” tournament also suggests shortcomings that have long perplexed artificial intelligence researchers and which IBM’s researchers will have to fix before the software can be used on patients.

“What you want is a system that understands you’re not playing a quiz game in medicine and there’s not one answer you’re looking for,” Siegel said.

“In playing ‘Jeopardy!’, there is one correct answer. The challenge we have in medicine is we have multiple diagnoses and the information is sometimes true and sometimes not true and sometimes conflicting. The Watson team is going to need to make the transition to an environment in which it comes up with multiple hypotheses—it will be a really interesting challenge for the team to be able to do that.”

Siegel said it would likely be at least two years before Watson will be used on patients at his hospital. It will take that much time to train the program to understand electronic medical records, feed it information from medical literature, and test whether what it’s learned leads to accurate analyses of patient symptoms.

He said he wasn’t bothered by Watson’s on-screen blunders; even highly trained medical professionals make dumb mistakes.