Creating something from nothing

The innovation driver in emerging markets.

Editor's note: This article is by IBM Research - India Director, and IBM Chief Technologist for South Asia Ramesh Gopinath.  

Speaking with a journalist here in Bangalore, recently, he quoted our website’s statement: “IBM Research spends over USD $6 billion in research and development, and has the most number of US patents to its credit.” He then posed a question that I felt is fundamental to our success: “What are the drivers for innovations from the labs?”

My response? It is the relentless pursuit of solutions to grand challenges: looking for innovative solutions to some of the hardest problems we face in the world, in areas ranging from education to healthcare, financial services to energy and more.

Africa, where we’ve launched our first lab on the continent in Nairobi, Kenya, presents the latest set of challenges that require some of the word's most advanced technologies alongside more frugal approaches. The lab's research agenda will include the development of cognitive computing technologies that integrate learning and reasoning capabilities, enabling industry experts – as well as any citizen – to make better decisions.

In this new era of computing, IBM believes that Africa has a strategic opportunity to become an early adopter of cognitive systems. However, at the same time, there is a clear role for what is sometimes referred to as “frugal innovation.” That is, our teams are working with the idea that “in the face of nothing, can we create something?”

Innovation Starts With Education

India and Africa both face the challenge of improving higher education for their growing youth population – or the “youth bulge” as it’s often referred to. In India, higher education enrollment has increased from 15.5 million in 2006-07 to 17.3 million in 2009-10. But the country lacks adequate infrastructure to educate them.

Similarly, countries across Africa do not have adequate education and training options. Illiteracy levels exceed 40 percent in several countries. Both countries are well poised to reap the benefits of technology advancements that can not only address the challenges of education for all but transform existing methods of education.  

Researchers at these labs are working on aligning education, employment and economic sustainability that could be applied across India and Africa. We’re working on technologies with intelligent content delivery and accessibility, with an emphasis on social learning that is also personalized all to improve the outcomes for the institution and the student.

For example, we’re experimenting with novel delivery models using ubiquitous devices such as mobile phones or USB drives to deliver curriculum. We chose these options because it must be low-cost, Internet delay tolerant (or even be used when disconnected), but can still be shared between students, instructors, or institutions.

Our teams are also working on deep analytics to evaluate, recommend, tag and link content; and crowd sourcing techniques to identify valuable and relevant content, thereby letting users leverage ever-growing content repositories in scalable and effective ways.

These data driven techniques are being developed to capture and mine student learning patterns, identify characteristics of the high achievers and codify these into best practices for other students. Algorithms for mining successful intervention techniques and using social and mobile capabilities to share these techniques across the teacher population are also being explored. 

While leaders from Africa and India work towards boosting bi-lateral trade, which has grown exponentially during the past decade and is expected to reach US $90 billion by 2015, it is perhaps the most opportune time to invest in mutually beneficial innovation.

Without the burden of technological legacies and with the benefits of favorable demographics, India and countries across Africa stand to gain from these educational innovations – and be the drivers of economic development in the years to come.

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