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IBM takes Watson on a $100m trip to Africa

Watson will be used for medical diagnoses, economic data collection and e-commerce research

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IBM today announced it is investing $100 million (£61 million) over the next 10 years on rolling out its Watson supercomputer system across Africa.

The initiative, dubbed “Project Lucy”, will enable scientists to access Watson and other cognitive computing technologies developed by IBM. The project has been named in honour of the earliest known human ancestor fossil, which was found in east Africa. 

The Watson supercomputer uses artificial intelligence to quickly analyse vast amounts of data and understand human language to the extent where it can hold sophisticated conversations. It even beat humans on the TV quiz show "Jeopardy" in February 2011.

The US firm said Watson's big data capabilities can be used to help fuel development and spur business opportunities across Africa. 

According to IBM, 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 group added that Watson will provide researchers with a powerful set of resources to help develop commercially-viable solutions in areas such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation, human mobility and agriculture.

Africa's IBM research director, Kamal Bhattacharya, said: “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."

“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.”

Big Blue has so far failed to convert Watson's intelligence into substantial revenue growth, with the system contributing just $100 million (£61 million) over the past three years. 

In a bid to address this, the firm is investing $1 billion (£614 million) on the Watson Business Group, including $100 million (£61 million) to fund start-ups developing cognitive apps.

IBM will also establish a new pan-African Centre of Excellence for Data-Driven Development (CEDD), where it hopes to work with universities, development agencies, start-ups. 

Prof Rahamon Bello, vice chancellor at the University of Lagos, said: "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."

IBM said it is also opening new Innovation Centres in Lagos, Nigeria; Casablanca, Morocco; and Johannesburg, South Africa. These new centres aim to spur local growth and fuel an ecosystem of development and entrepreneurship around big data analytics and cloud computing. 


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