A palate cleanser that’s actually a lot more than a palate cleanser. The first victory could be dismissed as a fluke, but the second victory is being taken as a sign that the era of real A.I. is upon us.

And maybe it is.

Imagine a supercomputer that can not only store and collate patient data but also interpret records in a matter of seconds, analyze additional patient information and research from medical journals and deliver possible diagnoses and treatments, with the probability of each outcome precisely calculated. “I think it’s going to usher in the next generation of medicine,” says Siegel. “It takes me 20 minutes to an hour or more to read through a patient’s electronic medical record. Having a computer understand and present the information to me is a huge step towards allowing me to make a better diagnosis. It is really the future of medicine.”…

But TV is one thing; real life is another. Some medical professionals, including Siegel’s colleagues, worry that a future Doctor Watson might make us too dependent on technology. A human diagnostician immediately understands that when we say we’ve got stomach pains, we could really be talking about any number of organs in the abdominal area, not just the stomach specifically; computers tend to think more literally. That’s why the IBM team insists that Watson can never supplant doctors completely. Katharine Frase, vice president of industry solutions at IBM Research, envisions a future where a version of Watson can be used to assist doctors in small practices where there may not be a cardiologist or urologist on call. Clinicians can use it to get answers faster rather than spending the time looking for a specialist. With a growing number of medical studies being published every day, it’s hard for doctors to keep up with all the latest data. Watson can store all that information and use it to help a doctor make his or her decision.

America’s coming doctor-shortage problem: Solved. More from Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings, who has an irresistible piece at Slate about what it’s like to square off with a computer that appears to “think” an awful lot like humans do:

I expected Watson’s bag of cognitive tricks to be fairly shallow, but I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as its programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer’s techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson’s case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels “sure” enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing…

“Watching you on Jeopardy! is what inspired the whole project,” one IBM engineer told me, consolingly. “And we looked at your games over and over, your style of play. There’s a lot of you in Watson.” I understood then why the engineers wanted to beat me so badly: To them, I wasn’t the good guy, playing for the human race. That was Watson’s role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity. So my defeat at the hands of a machine has a happy ending, after all. At least until the whole system becomes sentient and figures out the nuclear launch codes. But I figure that’s years away.

Here’s a clip of last night’s second round and final Jeopardy. A lingering question: How much of Watson’s advantage came from having a wider data set versus having a quicker reaction time? Buried in this NYT piece about the computer’s real-world applications is the fact that Watson’s precision timing allowed it to buzz in within 10 milliseconds of Trebek finishing his “answer,” i.e. question. (The machine’s reaction time was slower when it had less confidence in its response.) We’ll never know whether the CPU knew more than the human players, only that the CPU (a) knew a lot, (b) was capable of piecing together disparate bits of information, some of them obtuse, to find an answer, and (c) could offer that answer remarkably quickly. My only critique? They should have given it more of a persona so that it would have been easier to root for. The choice, I think, is obvious.