It's won Jeopardy, produced a cookbook, and helps call-center agents with frontline support, but IBM's cognitive computing platform Watson is about to embark on what could be its most socially-important venture yet: teaching tech skills to 25 million African youths.
In partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), IBM has unveiled a $70m, five-year initiative it's calling Digital-Nation Africa.
In doing so, it joins fellow tech giants like Google, SAP, and Microsoft, which are running large-scale digital literacy schemes on a continent facing both a massive skills shortage and an unemployment problem that Digital-Nation Africa will try to help address.
Digital-Nation Africa is based on IBM's Bluemix cloud platform, and will include a range of tools for different audiences. At its most basic, it offers courses on elementary computer and web usage, which IBM's Juan Napoli says will include advice on internet security and privacy.
For those with some digital skills or entrepreneurial ambitions, Digital-Nation Africa will offer coding classes, a mobile app suite and marketplace, and marketing materials for promoting apps.
Watson will be used for personalizing learning programs based on student progress and knowledge, to make recommendations on what parts of the course to take next. It will also gather anonymized data from the behavior of those who enroll on a Digital-Nation Africa course to identify key areas where skills and knowledge are lacking for future development of materials.
For entrepreneurs using the Digital-Nation Africa courses to develop apps and systems, Watson will recommend building blocks from Bluemix to improve their software, as well as suggesting potential market needs.
To hit the ambitious target of 25 million 15- to 34-year-olds learning through Digital-Nation Africa, Napoli says the firm has a network of 50 NGO, academic, and government partners it will use to reach both urban audiences and those in rural areas, and it will recruit more over the next five years.
Napoli says it is also building a network of volunteers, including IBM employees, who can teach digital literacy programs at the community level, where access to equipment and teachers has traditionally been limited.