IBM Watson heads to Africa with $100m investment

The Jeopardy!-winning cognitive computing package will be put to work on development projects.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

IBM is spending $100m over the next 10 years to develop projects based on its Watson cognitive computing system in Africa.

The company said Watson-based projects will developed at its new Africa Research laboratory, which opened in Nairobi late last year. IBM said it will also establish a new centre for 'data-driven development' and is recruiting research partners such as universities, development agencies, and startups in Africa to work on Watson-powered projects.

IBM said 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 outbreaks.

Named after IBM founder Thomas J Watson, the Watson uses natural language processing to help it analyse and understand unstructured data — and respond to questions from users. It was this skill that lead to its famous victory in US gameshow Jeopardy!. While its first iteration was the size of a room, IBM has now shrunk it down to single server.

But despite its quiz show win in 2011, the technology has so far generated limited revenue — less than $100m, according to one report, even though IBM sees cognitive computing efforts such as this as the key to its future growth.

To fix this, IBM is creating a Watson Business Group, spending $1bn on the division including $100m to fund startups developing cognitive apps. Early markets include healthcare where the software can help doctors suggest treatment options by searching through data from medical textbooks and research and combining it with patient preferences.

IBM said it is also opening of new IBM Innovation Centres in Lagos, Nigeria; Casablanca, Morocco; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

"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 Professor Rahamon Bello, Vice Chancellor at the University of Lagos.

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