IBM Research officially opened a new lab in South Africa—Big Blue’s second research lab in Africa—to focus on health care, digital urban ecosystems and astronomy, among other key issues.
The new lab, based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, employs researchers in a variety of disciplines, including math, computational biology, robotics, genomics, machine learning and computer science.
IBM said its scientists will apply their expertise to help address some of South Africa’s health care concerns, such as outbreaks of communicable diseases and cancer prevention using cognitive computing, the internet of things (IoT) and big data to help with analyses.
“South Africa is a tremendous growth and transformation story, yet its increasing population and healthcare delivery shortfalls continue to pose challenges in the country,” said Solomon Assefa, director of IBM Research – Africa, in a statement. “With the ability to detect patterns and discover new correlations, cognitive and cloud computing and the internet of things can provide potential solutions.”
The new IBM Research facility in South Africa is a good example of the ways in which the company pursues projects that are germane to local communities and also have commercial potential, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
The company values its research arm, spending an average of around $6 billion a year on research and development. Last year, IBM spent $5.247 billion on research and $5.437 billion in 2014. IBM’s research, development and engineering (RD&E) expense was 6.4 percent of revenue in 2015 and 5.9 percent of revenue in 2014. IBM spent $6.23 billion on research in 2013 and $6.3 billion in 2012. The company has 12 research labs on six continents, including three in the United States.
“The lab’s three key focus areas will provide wide-ranging opportunities for academic and industry partnerships while addressing South Africa’s biggest challenges: data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and exploring the universe,” Assefa said in a blog post. “About a dozen projects are already underway ranging from tuberculosis tracking, traffic optimization, wildfire risk assessment, and even a partnership with NASA to analyze millions of radio signals from outer space to detect terrestrial interference.”
Indeed, IBM scientists at the South Africa lab are working with the World Health Organization’s End TB (Tuberculosis) Strategy by creating wearable IoT sensors to study the spread of TB and other communicable diseases. In addition, IBM is applying cognitive technology to cancer research and prevention. And as part of a proof-of-concept project, IBM found a molecular link between genes that cause cancer and genes associated with cancer metastasis.
Other cancer research shows IBM applying data from South Africa’s National Cancer Registry and working with the University of Witwatersrand Medical School to use cognitive technology to project cancer statistics in South Africa. IBM said this collaboration is expected to reduce a five-year time lag in cancer statistics reporting to real time.
IBM Research Launches South Africa Lab
IBM researchers also have been working with the Metagenomics and Metadesign of the Subways and Urban Biomes (MetaSUB) international consortium. As part of that effort, Big Blue collected 65 samples of microbes and bacteria from 19 bus stations across Johannesburg to help predict future disease outbreaks.
Moreover, next month IBM will host a hackathon on anti-malarial drug resistance and drug combination prediction in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame and H3ABioNet.
Regarding digital urban ecosystems, IBM said it is building on its Green Horizons initiative to study air pollution in South Africa and predict ground level ozone and air quality.
Last December, IBM launched a pilot program with the city of Johannesburg and South Africa’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to model air pollution trends and quantify the effectiveness of the city’s programs supporting Johannesburg’s air quality targets and long-term sustainable development.
“Air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. While Johannesburg does not yet have the air pollution challenges to the scale of the world’s megacities, continued economic and demographic growth mean that the city government must take action now to safeguard the future health of the city and its people,” Assefa said in a statement at the time. “The combined power of Internet of Things and cognitive computing means that understanding, managing and forecasting air quality today is more technically and economically feasible than ever before.”
Moreover, as part of the new lab’s astronomy research, IBM scientists in South Africa are working with NASA, the SETI Institute and Swinburne University to develop an Apache Spark application. The new application, which employs machine learning algorithms, will analyze the more than 168 million radio events recorded by the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) over the last decade. And IBM is working with SKA South Africa on the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, which will go online in South Africa and Australia in 2018.
Pund-IT’s King said South Africa faces a range of challenges related to health care provision, rapid urbanization and supporting rural communities, and IBM is bringing a number of its core technology assets to bear on these problems, including Watson IoT, cognitive learning, environmental monitoring and The Weather Company.
“In addition, the company is collaborating on South Africa-based astronomical projects that look beyond earthbound problems to see what’s in the stars,” King said. “Overall, the scope and reach of these new efforts demonstrates why IBM is one of the world’s preeminent leaders in scientific and technological research.”