As IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, gets stuck into learning Arabic, the AI technology aims to transform business in the Middle East in everything from healthcare to banking

IBM's Watson supercomputer

We often read that Big Data heralds Big Promise. But it also comes with a Big Problem – how to turn all that information into something coherent and useful. Step forward artificial intelligence (AI) and, specifically, Watson.

Developed by tech giant IBM, Watson is a supercomputer that understands human language, crunches vast amounts of data, learns our preferences (rather than being constantly re-programmed) and offers up tailored analysis. Thanks to a joint venture between IBM and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala in July, Watson’s super brain is now also available in the Middle East.

“Experts are struggling to keep up with an overwhelming sea of information,” says Sunil Mahajan, from IBM Middle East & Africa’s analytics unit. “Watson can understand that information and bridge gaps in our knowledge, helping us to glean better insights.”

Watson is what IBM calls cloud-delivered cognitive computing. Using the same learning processes as humans do, Watson analyses mountains of information – from research studies to tweets – to become like a human expert in a particular area, only at “incredible scale” explains Mahajan.

The tie-up puts all this computing power at the service of the region’s industries, such as healthcare, retail, education, banking and finance. For example, when it comes to financial services Watson can help with sifting through data to help with investment choices, trading patterns or risk management, says Mahajan.

Still, it is in healthcare that IBM’s AI claims the most promise. By putting in an individual’s data, Watson could issue personalised health advice. The idea is that Watson helps humans make better decisions, by coming up with the probability of which cancer treatment is best for a particular patient, for example. Watson will also soon be able to ‘see’ images, adding to the treasure trove of information: “IBM plans to acquire [US-based] Merge [Healthcare Incorporated] in an effort to unlock the value of medical images to help physicians make better patient care decisions,” says Mahajan.

In the UAE, the computing technology will be housed at Injazat, Mubadala’s IT subsidiary. The name of the joint venture company is still to be decided. The venture hopes to take advantage of a public cloud-service market in MENA forecast to grow at around 17 per cent this year, according to IBM. There are currently more than 300 partners building Watson apps globally, says the firm.

The supercomputer shot to fame in 2011 when it appeared on an edition of the US television quiz show Jeopardy! where it beat two (human) trivia champions, understanding and answering questions in natural language.

Once Watson, named after former IBM president Thomas J Watson, gets up to speed in Arabic the prospects for its application in the region are significant.

“The Middle East is at an unprecedented turning point, with technology innovation fueling economic diversification and investment from overseas,” says Mounir Barakat, ‎executive director, information and communications technology, Mubadala. “Now is the right time to bring Watson to every decision maker keen on making informed decisions anywhere.”