IBM Takes Watson to Africa for Project Lucy

IBM announced plans to use its Watson cognitive computing technology to tap big data opportunities in Africa.

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.”