Can IBM’s Supercomputer Help Africa?


Technologies promising to revolutionize international development are in no short supply – though the results are somewhat more difficult to find. Inventions and would-be solutions come and go, but the problems persist. The web was a flutter earlier this month with the announcement that IBM is devoting $100 million dollars over ten years to apply the power of its Jeopardy! winning super-computer, Watson, to development issues on the African continent.

WatsonConsidered to be at the forefront of artificial intelligence developments, Watson is able to interpret and answer complicated questions and even learn from the process. Unlike its famous predecessor, the chess-playing Deep Blue, Watson goes beyond simply crunching mass amounts of data by analyzing patterns, learning from each task ,and upgrading its own abilities. Project Lucy, named after the earliest known human ancestor, seeks to harness this power to unravel some of the continent’s most serious and complicated issues.

Sometimes innovations are about the little things, but here we find a multi-billion dollar computer being used to find patterns too complex for humans to uncover. Researchers hope to the system will be able to help us understand issues like food prices, GDP fluctuations, and even anticipate diseases. Crucially, the system will be available to scientists, researchers, and business people through IBM’s new research station in Nairobi, rather than only those working in the US.

The excitement for the project has led to a wide range of predictions for what the technology can be applied to. The BBC suggests uses from assisting transportation by analyzing pothole-filled roads and traffic congestion, to new ways to prevent or treat cervical cancer. At this point, however, what the system will be used for is largely conjecture. The only success story so far is a Lagos delivery firm using the system to improve timing and schedules.

On one hand, the potential to sort and interpret vast amounts of data is exciting and full of potential. On the other, we’ve heard the promise before that a new idea will help Africa ‘leapfrog’ other economies.

Stay tuned for updates as the project moves forward.

More information can be found at IBM’s website, an excellent and critical piece by the Daily Maverick, this article by the BBC, and a shorter one by TNW.

The following video outlines the goals and approaches by IBM Research Africa.

Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson

Eric is an editor, writer, and community organizer based in Guelph, Canada.

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