A huge win for artificial intelligence … but what does it mean for humans?

That’s why Paul Saffo, a longtime Silicon Valley forecaster, and others, see better search engines as the ultimate benefit from the “Jeopardy!”-playing machine.

“We are headed toward a world where you are going to have a conversation with a machine,” Saffo said. “Within five to10 years, we’ll look back and roll our eyes at the idea that search queries were a string of answers and not conversations.”

The beneficiaries, IBM’s Ferrucci said, could include technical support centers, hospitals, hedge funds, researchers, or others who need to make lots of decisions that rely on lots of data.

For example, a medical center might use the software to better diagnose disease. Because a patient’s symptoms can generate many possibilities, the advantage of a Watson-type program would be its ability to scan the medical literature faster than a human could and suggest the most likely result. A human, of course, would then have to investigate the computer’s finding and make the final diagnosis.

That’s how the two university medical centers that have signed up to test the technology plan to use it.

The agreements with the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine will be the program’s first real-world tests outside of the trivia game show and IBM’s laboratories.

Eliot Siegel, a professor at the Maryland university’s medical school, said other artificial intelligence programs for hospitals have been slower and more limited in their responses than Watson promises to be. They have also been largely limited by a physician’s knowledge of a particular symptom or disease.

Laura Ascione