February 12, 2014 – Named after the fossil human ancestor Lucy discovered in Ethiopia a few decades ago, IBM is taking on Africa’s greatest challenges using Watson, the computer the company created to beat all challengers at the game, Jeopardy.
Watson’s artificial intelligence gives it the skill to discern patterns in complex data. Applying this ability to the many challenges Africa is experiencing from freshwater shortages to mass rural to urban migration will prove a useful tool for cross country planning initiatives.
IBM will partner with the pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development that includes universities, development agencies, NGOs and business start-right across the continent.
Here are some interesting facts that Africa will have to deal with in the coming decades:
- Africa’s population is expected to increase by 1.8 billion to 2.4 billion in the next 50 years with 25% of the world’s population residing on the continent. In this projection 37 countries will double their population by 2050.
- Africa has the highest urban growth rate in the world with Lagos, Nigeria becoming the world’s third most populous within the decade exceeding 25 million.
- In 2050, 50% of Africa’s population will be under the age of 24, and by 2100 almost half of the world’s youth population will come from this continent. Of these 1/3 in sub-Saharan Africa lack basic skills to meet the 21st century labour market even though they will represent a larger workforce than all of China.
- To date Africa has developed only 5% of its hydroelectric capacity. This untapped resource could provide electricity to almost all of the continent where today only 25% of sub-Saharan citizens have access to power.
- At the same time Africa is increasingly facing freshwater shortages and must address this challenge with a multitude of potential solutions from new irrigation technologies to the introduction of drought-tolerant cultivables.
- Today Africa has the lowest yield rate of any continent in producing food crops despite containing 60% of the remaining uncultivated arable land on the planet. The opportunity to become self-sustaining in food production is there.
- Africa has the fastest growing mobile telecommunications buildout on the planet. In Kenya alone almost 1/3 of the commerce in the country gets transferred through mobile payment systems. This illustrates how Africa is capable of leapfrogging legacy technology infrastructure to achieve 21st century outcomes.
IBM will invest $100 million U.S. over a decade to help Africans find solutions using the Watson cognitive computing platform. This is technology that has the ability to sift through large amounts of data and find emerging patterns and correlations. With Watson seeking answers to Africa’s challenges the continent could find itself emerging as a strong economic player in the global community rather than the “sick man” of the planet.
So what started as a project to build a computer to beat the best human contestants in a television game show is turning into a world beater of a technology.