IBM's Watson in Africa to help solve problems

Children peeking through a broken TV set, copyright Lawrence Mwangi Can supercomputers make up for lack of real computers in African schools?

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The vast brainpower of IBM's supercomputer Watson is to be utilised in Africa to attempt to solve some of the continent's most pressing problems.

Better agriculture, education and health are just three of the improvements the system could bring, said the firm.

Watson uses artificial intelligence to analyse huge amounts of data and can also understand human language.

Experts said such a system could help the African economy "leapfrog" others.

The project dubbed, Lucy, after the earliest known human ancestor fossil which was found in east Africa, will cost $100m (£61m) and take 10 years to complete.

Uyi Stewart, chief scientist of IBM Research in Africa, told the BBC that the system could transform education and health in the same way as mobile banking had transformed finance on the continent.

"With the adoption of mobile phones, banking has become virtual and it could be the same premise in education and healthcare," he said.

Children standing at the edge of crops, copyright Huzeifa Hakimi Agriculture could be improved by analysing weather patterns and other factors

Its ability to crunch through vast amounts of data and its access to a wealth of information could prove helpful in a variety of contexts.

And people will be able to ask it questions.

"It is also able to reason. One if its key functions is natural language processing," said Mr Stewart.

Schools with poor or non-existent computer resources could link into the cloud-based system via smartphones or portable devices with internet connectivity.

Doctors, nurses and field workers could use the system to help diagnose illnesses and identify the best treatment for each patient.

A bus stuck in a pothole, Catherine Wanjiru Wanyangi Analysing the state of Africa's roads and offering routes to avoid potholes could save headaches

So, for example, Watson could help answer why sub-Saharan Africa currently accounts for 22% of all cervical cancers. It could suggest new ways to treat and prevent the disease.

And analytics on the state of country roads and congestion levels in cities could prove useful for logistics firms that currently have to negotiate pothole-filled roads and traffic chaos.

A delivery firm in Lagos is already using the system to improve delivery times and schedules.

IBM is working on ways to make sure that Watson is able to provide relevant bite-sized chunks of information.

Prof Rahamon Bello, vice-chancellor of the university of Lagos, is excited by the prospect of access to a supercomputer which he thinks could help Africa "leapfrog other economies".

African cityscape, Mutua Matheka Africa's economy is booming but greater tie-ups between technology and local expertise could help it leapfrog others, thinks one professor

Clever data mining has already proved its worth in Morocco where it has been used to improve how crops are grown by predicting weather, demand and disease outbreaks.

Despite the huge potential of artificial intelligence machines, IBM has made just $100m from Watson in the past three years.

It is determined to change that and recently invested $1bn in creating a business unit for the system.

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