Project Lucy: Confronting Africa’s Grand Challenges – with Watson’s Help

By Steve Hamm

Amid the chaos of civil war, Abdigani Diriye’s family fled Somalia in a rush when he was just five years old. Diriye and his sister escaped to London in the care of a 19-year-old aunt; his father flew to Sweden; and his mother made her way through the battle zone to Kenya.

Diriye’s childhood experience was common for Somalis of his generation. Many people had it much worse. But Diriye stands out in another way:  After living in the UK and the US for 25 years, he’s returning to Africa next month to help solve its many problems—as a new member of the team at IBM Research – Africa. “It could have easily been me still in Somalia living on $2 a day with no access to clean water,” he says. “It’s my social responsibility to go back and give back.”

He’ll arrive at the lab just in time to participate in a major new initiative aimed at doing just that. Project Lucy is a 10-year, $100 million effort by IBM to work with governments, universities and development organizations to address Africa’s grand challenges. A key element will be harnessing IBM Watson, which beat two grand-champions on the TV game show Jeopardy! IBM announced the initiative while Chief Executive Ginni Rometty and members of her senior executive team were meeting with government and business leaders in Nigeria.

IBM established its first African research facility in Nairobi, Kenya, last year, and plans on expanding to other countries. Even now, the Watson capability, which is delivered as a cloud service, will be available for projects wherever IBM does business on the continent.

IBM Research Director John Kelly promised to bring Watson to Africa in a meeting with business and academic leaders one year ago. He urged them to propose ambitious projects that would require using the most advanced cognitive computing technology in the world. The lab took input from local leaders and, as a result, expanded its mission to target Africa’s grand challenges—agriculture, water, energy, education, healthcare, financial inclusion and public safety. “When we looked at the scope of the challenges, we said, ‘We need Watson for this,’” says Osamuyimen Stewart, the chief scientist for IBM Research Africa, a native Nigerian who lived for 23 years in the United States.

The team chose “Lucy” as the name for the project because of the significance of the discovery of her fossilized remains in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley in 1974. Just as Lucy was a precursor to humans, scientists see Watson as an early example of cognitive computing. The lab’s leaders hope that big data analytics and cognitive computing will provide breakthroughs of similar magnitude.

These technologies could help transform the economies and societies of Africa. Michel Bézy, associate director of Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, who grew up in the Belgian Congo, says Africa needs to take advantage of the big data explosion to fulfill its potential. “From a scientific and research point of view, it’s a great thing to have Watson. Now we need to make sure we can make good use of it,” he says. At CMU’s Rwanda campus, faculty members are working with students on projects that are intended to have a direct impact on small and medium-sized businesses—which many believe will be the engine for economic growth across the continent.

There will be a multitude of uses for cognitive technologies and big data analytics. In any situation where humans struggle to gain insights from large quantities of data or to make important decisions, Watson can help. Two of the focus areas will be healthcare and education.

Abdigani Diriye, IBM Researcher
Abdigani Diriye, IBM Researcher

Healthcare: The people of Sub-Saharan Africa are dealing with a wide range of diseases, including HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Yet, many get medical treatment from community health workers in clinics. With access to Watson’s cognitive intelligence, doctors and nurses in clinics will get help in diagnosing illnesses and identifying the best treatment for each patient.

Education: Nearly half the adult population of Africa is illiterate. Schools are understaffed and educational materials are lacking. Social and cultural pressures contribute to missed days of school and poor performance by students. Watson can help school systems evaluate all of the circumstances that are contributing to poor outcomes, identify root causes of problems and suggest solutions.

To help fuel an ecosystem around cognitive systems and big data analytics, IBM has established a pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development (CEDD). The goal is to combine forces and collaborate with research partners such as universities, development agencies and IBM clients in Africa and from around the world. By joining the center, IBM’s partners will be able to gain access to Watson. “I see a great opportunity for research partnerships between companies alike IBM and African organizations bringing together the world’s most advanced technologies with local expertise and knowledge,” says Prof. Rahamon Bello, vice chancellor of Nigeria’s University of Lagos.

Indeed, new models for collaborative research may emerge. One can envision a powerful triad of complimentary organizations working together–corporations and universities providing world-class research, local development organizations providing real-world expertise, and funding organizations finding ways to have a more direct impact on solving Africa’s problems. The Center also plans to engage with Africa’s emergent startup communities.

Will approaches like this work? Wolfgang Fengler, who was until recently the lead economist for the World Bank in Nairobi, sees merit in them. “It has to be interdisciplinary,” he says. “But it won’t be enough to have technology and money. You will need people who can analyze data and make sense of it.”

IBM’s Stewart believes another skill set will be essential, as well: the ability to figure out, sometimes through trial and error, how technologies will be most useful to Africa’s people. “We have to Africanize innovation,” he says.

That’s where people like IBM researcher Abdigani Diriye come in. With a PhD from the University of London in human-computer interaction and his interest helping the common people, he’s attuned to the necessity of producing technological tools that adapt to the needs of people—rather than trying to force people to adapt to computers. As a graduate student, he learned how to make Web search technologies more useful to people in developed economies. Now, in IBM Research – Africa, he can help transform lives and society. “The potential to have an impact is enormous,” he says. Coming from where he does, he wouldn’t settle for anything less.


To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.

To see other photos in the The World is Our Lab photo contest, click here.

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