IBM Takes Watson to Africa for Project Lucy

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2014-02-06

IBM Takes Watson to Africa for Project Lucy

IBM announced its next major chapter for Watson–fueling economic development and sparking new business opportunities across Africa.

This announcement comes on the heels of IBM’s $1 billion bet to create the Watson Group, which will accelerate efforts around the new era of cognitive computing.

Now, IBM has launched a 10-year initiative to bring Watson and other cognitive systems to Africa. Dubbed “Project Lucy” after the earliest known human ancestor, IBM will invest $100 million in the initiative. Lucy is the common name of AL 288-1, several hundred pieces of bone representing about 40 percent of the skeleton of a female hominid estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.

“In the last decade, Africa has been a tremendous growth story--yet the continent's challenges, stemming from population growth, water scarcity, disease, low agricultural yield and other factors, are impediments to inclusive economic growth,” said Kamal Bhattacharya, director of IBM Research–Africa, in a statement. “With the ability to learn from emerging patterns and discover new correlations, Watson's cognitive capabilities hold enormous potential in Africa–helping it to achieve in the next two decades what today's developed markets have achieved over two centuries.”

IBM's Watson technologies will be deployed from IBM's Africa Research laboratory providing researchers with resources to help develop commercially viable solutions in areas such as health care, education, water and sanitation, human mobility and agriculture.

Moreover, to help fuel the cognitive computing market and build an ecosystem around Watson, IBM said it also will establish a new pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development (CEDD) and is recruiting research partners such as universities, development agencies, start-ups and clients in Africa and around the world. By joining the initiative, IBM’s partners will be able to tap into cloud-delivered cognitive intelligence that will be invaluable for solving the continent’s most pressing challenges and creating new business opportunities.

“For Africa to join, and eventually leapfrog, other economies, we need comprehensive investments in science and technology that are well integrated with economic planning and aligned to the African landscape,” said Professor Rahamon Bello, vice chancellor of the University of Lagos. “I see a great opportunity for innovative research partnerships between companies like IBM and African organizations, bringing together the world’s most advanced technologies with local expertise and knowledge.”

IBM has increased its investment across Africa in recent years, culminating in its first African IBM Research lab in Nairobi, Kenya.

Africa is witnessing the emergence of African Lions--countries that are spearheading high levels of economic growth through innovation and which are set to boost industrial growth by an estimated $400 billion by 2020. New figures show that increased connectivity and technology use will radically transform sectors as diverse as agriculture, retail and health care—and contribute as much as $300 billion a year to Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2025, according to a McKinsey report.

Over the last five years, IBM has continued to make strategic investments in the African technology space as it seeks to provide governments, businesses and academia with enhanced access to the high-end technologies that will power their economies’ growth.

Moreover, Big Blue said big data technologies have a major role to play in Africa’s development challenges: from understanding food price patterns, to estimating (GDP) and poverty numbers, to anticipating disease–the key is turning data into knowledge and actionable insight.

“The next wave of development in Africa requires a new collaborative approach where nonprofit and commercial organizations like RTI and IBM work together to consolidate, analyze and act upon the continent’s data,” said Aaron Williams, executive vice president of International Development at RTI International, in a statement. “Data-driven development has the potential to improve the human condition and provide decision makers with the insight they need to make more targeted interventions.”

IBM Takes Watson to Africa for Project Lucy

Michel Bezy, associate director for Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, said, “Africa is facing a double challenge: the lack of accessible data to support its economic development, and the lack of advanced skills in data analysis. IBM's work to share Watson with Africa will help to address both challenges.”

The new pan-African CEDD will help here by leveraging the latest Watson cognitive technologies to provide its research partners with access to high-frequency data. This will enable scientists and analysts to more accurately calculate social and economic conditions and identify previously unseen correlations across multiple domains. Through the Project Lucy initiative, partners will be able to tap into IBM’s expertise in cognitive computing across its 12 global laboratories and new Watson business unit.

Two of the first focus areas of the new center are health care and education.

Regarding health care, IBM estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa is home to approximately 25 percent of the world’s disease burden; yet the most common form of health care outside of cities is delivered by community health workers. CEDD will collect encyclopedic knowledge about traditional and non-traditional diseases in Africa. With access to Watson’s cognitive intelligence, doctors, nurses and field workers will get help in diagnosing illnesses and identifying the best treatment for each patient, IBM said.

For example, according to IBM, women in sub-Saharan Africa account for 22 percent of all cases of cervical cancer worldwide mainly due to a lack of services and knowledge. Watson could provide new insights into the evolution of cervical cancer in Africa and suggest new approaches for its prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

On the education front, IBM said half of African children will reach their adolescent years unable to read, write or perform basic numeric tasks. The key to improving these statistics is a thorough understanding of student performance, teacher expertise, attendance levels, class sizes, linguistic abilities and learning materials. While previous information systems have only provided a limited view of point problems, using Watson technologies, CEDD aims to create new holistic approaches for analyzing data to identify previously unrecorded correlations.

For example, Watson could identify the link between a contaminated water borehole, an epidemic of cholera and the subsequent low levels of school attendance in the region. Watson could also help to uncover other causes of low school attendance in a particular region such as a lack of sanitary supplies and cultural traditions placing childcare responsibility on older siblings.

This week IBM is also announcing other investments into the African innovation ecosystem with the opening of new IBM Innovation Centers in Lagos, Nigeria; Casablanca, Morocco; and Johannesburg, South Africa. These new centers aim to spur local growth and fuel an ecosystem of development and entrepreneurship around big data analytics and cloud computing in the region. In recognition of its role in driving data-driven growth and opportunity, this week Frost & Sullivan named IBM an Innovation Leader in Big Data and Analytics in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This focus on Africa is not a new one for IBM. IBM has been making long term, strategic investments in the future and economic expansion of this rapidly expanding region. IBM has operated in Africa since the 1930s, and today has a direct presence in more than 20 African countries and hundreds of clients such as: Santam, RAWBANK in the DRC, Fidelity Bank and Surfline Communications in Ghana, Bharti Airtel across 17 African countries, and Morocco's Ministry of Economy and Finance.  Over the next few years IBM plans to continue strengthening this network with new facilities, offerings and partnerships.

IBM recently organized an initiative asking people from across Africa to submit images which best illustrate Africa’s grand challenges and opportunities and help illustrate the mission of IBM’s new Africa Research Lab. "The World is Our Lab – Africa" project has generated more than 1,200 images from across 25 African countries helping to tell the other side of the continent’s story. To visit the project Website, go to:

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