Sunday, May 25, 2014

A visit to the IBM Research - Africa lab

Nowhere in IBM is there such a concentration of people working on so many issues that are so important to the world. The Research lab works on applying cutting edge technology - think cognitive computing - to the basics - water, education, agriculture, energy, etc.  It's an exciting place.
Some photos from The World is Our Lab photo contest

I envy these folks. They are applying their creativity and intelligence to the most important problems - and getting paid for it.  Of course the downside with doing cool things is that everyone else constantly wants to come hear about it and be a part of it - people like us! As an unofficial tour guide at IBM's M&C Lab in New York City, I can relate. 
Komminist Weldemariam describes his work on personalized education at the lab.

Now the plan is to bring Watson to Africa - Project Lucy was announced earlier this year.  There's a great writeup on Lucy here.

It's a bold vision.  When you look around you see such basic needs - one might ask: isn't cognitive computing sort of skipping a few steps? Do I need Watson when I'm still working on getting clean water?

Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, who heads the lab, answered that question by pointing out that many of our clients are in fact way ahead of us.  They've leapfrogged landline infrastructure and mobile payments and now they are anticipating the next "leap".  Dr. Bhattacharya described how clients are already asking about technology two or three steps ahead of where they are, knowing that without the same legacy systems to overcome they can move more quickly.  An example he gave was a bank who had asked about how they could build on their systems to move into health insurance. If a bank will offer health insurance than why not equip a community health worker with a cognitive computing system that aids in providing basic diagnoses and treatments?

Our CSC team met with Charity and Eric from the lab who generously shared some ideas with us.  Eric's working on using voice authentication for mobile banking and collecting data that could help provide better credit assessments for smallscale borrowers, among other things.  I spent hours editing videos of these folks talking about their projects back in February for an IBM internal education initiative I developed content for, so it felt like connecting with old friends even though it was the first time we'd met face to face!

Our team out in front of the lab.

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