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Industry Insight

Dreaming the future of Africa

Emerging technologies can give society the ability to solve some of its most urgent problems.

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the limitless possibilities of cognitive computing and how the power of super computers, like Watson, and companies like Coseer and IBM, can change the world. Looking back at this, I wondered – where are they now?

Well, it turns out, they are right here. In late 2016, IBM opened its second research centre in Africa. As part of a 10-year investment programme through SA's Department of Trade and Industry, and working closely with the Department of Science and Technology, the new research lab is based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and some exciting things are happening.

Future healthcare

The design and manufacture of wearable sensor technologies, which will be connected to Watson, will be a reality. With the power of a supercomputer backing it, these devices will enable scientists to trace the spread of highly infectious, communicable diseases.

It is thought that this innovation will help healthcare organisations and health officials develop effective prevention strategies and responses. As part of a proof of concept study, IBM scientists recently discovered a basic molecular link between cancer-causing genes and those associated with metastasis, the cause of 90% of cancer-related deaths. They are also using anonymous and unstructured data that is provided by the National Cancer Registry in SA in a collaboration with the Wits Medical School.

The goal is to develop cognitive algorithms to automate the inference of national cancer statistics in SA. It is thought these algorithms will reduce the five-year time lag in statistical cancer reporting to real-time.

In an effort to empower city planners, public health officials and scientists to predict and prepare for future disease outbreaks, IBM scientists have collected 65 samples of microbes and bacteria from 19 bus stations across the City of Johannesburg as part of the global Metagenomics and Metadesign of the Subways and Urban Biomes (MetaSUB) international consortium.

Urban jungles

Analysing historical and real-time data from environmental monitoring stations, and using machine learning and cognitive models, the data collected in the City of Johannesburg, the City of Tshwane and the Vaal Industrial Triangle will help provide more insight into air pollution and model the effectiveness of intervention strategies.

The goal is to develop cognitive algorithms to automate the inference of national cancer statistics in SA.

This initiative has been so successful it has recently been extended to also develop strategies that will predict ground level ozone and air quality forecasting. Various traffic issues in the City of Johannesburg adds approximately 35 minutes of extra travel time per day to commuters.

In collaboration with TomTom and combining Twitter information, a traffic optimisation recommendation tool was developed that can help city officials dispatch traffic volunteers to the intersections where they are most urgently needed. Using data from The Weather Company and combining it with the City of Cape Town's Open Data portal, scientists have developed a cognitive dashboard that can assess fire incidence risk and severity. It is believed this dashboard will help officials raise public awareness and prepare for emergency responses.

It is especially exciting to consider the above are just some of the focus areas, and how much potential there is for cognitive computing to benefit other areas. Cognitive computing is all about innovation. And, oddly enough, in my opinion anyway, imagination. With an exponential growth in the number of business and IT leaders that are beginning to grasp what cognitive computing is and how it will radically reshape the present IT landscape – I believe the next wave of IT should be all about giving businesses the ability to outthink their competition.

However, more importantly, it should also be about giving society and humanity the ability to solve some of their most pressing and urgent problems. Perhaps that is why companies like IBM are investing so heavily in the future of Africa's emerging market. This is a nation and a continent of eager, smart and analytically minded souls that have a yearning to learn and the imagination of explorers. As smart, cognitive and easy to use as computers like Watson may be, they still need skilled practitioners and ideas to be successful. Ideas of how to help, how to be better, how to discover a new way. Innovations in the world of water, of cities, of poverty. Dreams about using something as powerful as the supercomputers of today, to change tomorrow.

Cognitive computing in and of itself fascinates me. The idea that humanity and artificial intelligence (AI) have reached a point in time where Facebook has to switch off its chatbots when they develop their own language absolutely boggles my mind. This is primarily because I was born in the time before computers, and before television and the technology of today. I come from a generation where AI is only in the science fiction books I devoured every week. Perhaps that is why it holds such a fascination for me. It brings me back to the most innocent ideas I had of what the future could be, compared to what it is now… and the dream of what it can be shaped into.


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