IBM has launched a 10-year, $100 million project to use technology to improve the quality of life in Africa. The initiative has been named Project Lucy, in honor of the oldest human ancestor found on the continent, and it will include the artificial intelligence in IBM’s famous Jeopardy-playing supercomputer, Watson.
Big Blue says it wants to fuel development and business opportunities across Africa through Watson and other “cognitive systems” and big data analysis. IBM will set up research centers that will give scientists and partners in Africa access to the best computing technologies.
“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 in Africa. “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.”
Watson, which beat some of the best human players at Jeopardy, represents a new era of cognitive computing in which systems and software are not programmed but rather improve by learning so they can discover answers to questions and insights after analyzing massive amounts of data.
The new Africa Research lab will use Watson technologies to provide researchers with the resources they need to develop commercial solutions in healthcare, education, water and sanitation, human mobility, and agriculture.
IBM is setting up a new pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development (CEDD) and it is recruiting research partners such as universities, development agencies, startups, and clients in Africa and around the world.
“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 Prof Rahamon Bello, vice chancellor at 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.”
The goal is to do more to raise the standard of living for millions of people on the continent. IBM expects to evaluate data such as food price patterns, poverty, gross domestic product, and disease outbreaks. Then it wants to take that data and turn it into actions.
“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 for international development at RTI International. “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 will give partners in Africa access to its cloud computing technologies through Project Lucy. Two of the first areas of focus are healthcare and education.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 25 percent of the world’s diseased people, but the most common form of healthcare is provided by community health workers. CEDD will collect more data about the diseases and use Watson technologies to help medical workers diagnose the sick.
In education, lots of work has to be done. Half of African children will reach their adolescent years unable to read, write, or perform basic math. IBM believes it can analyze data to find the links between problems like water contamination, cholera outbreaks, and low levels of school attendance.
Big Blue will open innovation centers in Lagos, Nigeria; Casablanca, Morocco; and Johannesburg, South Africa. IBM is also opening its software-as-a-service portfolio to African universities.