IBM’s Watson supercomputer is learning Arabic in move to Middle East

July 14, 2015, 4:01 AM UTC
Watson computer at IBM in New York City
NEW YORK CITY, NY- MAY 27: IBM Watson's computer housing case. IBM's Watson computer is best known for winning Jeopardy, unaware of time constraints, while playing against humans. Some of Watson's other features are based in problem solving across many different careers. A demonstration showed how quickly Watson is able to diagnose illnesses, and provided a real life case that took doctors and nurses six days to diagnose, and only ended with the correct diagnosis because a nurse had seen the disease before. Based on symptoms input, Watson was able to correctly diagnose in minutes. The demonstration took place at IBM Watson's New York City, New York office on May 27, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Spear for The Washington Post via Getty Images.)
Photograph by Andrew Spear — The Washington Post/Getty Images

IBM supercomputer and Jeopardy champion Watson is learning Arabic and setting up shop in the Middle East and North Africa, IBM said Tuesday morning.

The big data service and source of heavy investment from IBM (IBM) will be rolled out to the region as part of joint venture between Big Blue and the Mubadala Development Company, the investment arm of the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Mubadala and IBM formed a new company in which IBM is the minority shareholder, Mike Rhodin, the senior vice president of IBM’s Watson group, said in an interview with Fortune. IBM did not disclose the financial terms of the deal, and the name of the newly formed company is still being decided on, Rhodin said.

The goal of the joint venture is to spread the use of Watson throughout the Middle East, especially for startups and universities there to tap into the supercomputer’s data crunching services, Rhodin said. While IBM traditionally courts large enterprises like big banks or telecoms to be customers, in this case it made sense for the IBM to work with a local company like Mubadala to attract smaller organizations in the region as potential Watson users, he explained.

IBM is no stranger to Mubadala considering the Abu Dhabi investment company owns Globalfoundries. IBM sold Mubadala that chip-making business last fall.

As part of bringing Watson to the Middle East, IBM will be setting up the supercomputer technology inside the data centers of Injazat Data Systems, a Mubadala subsidiary, said Rhodin. Because IBM must abide by local data sovereignty laws, the company had to install the analytic service and the servers for its cloud computing service (which companies can use to access Watson) in the Middle East.

IBM is hoping that with the Watson artificial intelligence service now in the Middle East, local startups looking to create consumer-focused applications, like the next Uber, will use it to build their products, he said.

The company is also banking on Middle Eastern healthcare organizations turning to Watson. The Cleveland Clinic, a U.S.-based academic hospital that’s signed up to use Watson for genomic research, worked with Mubadala to build a hospital in Abu Dhabi a few years ago. The Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic are all users of the IBM Watson Health service, which is essentially a version of the Watson service tailored for healthcare.

Rhodin said that medical problems like obesity and diabetes plague the Middle East like they do in the U.S. and Asia. He’s hoping that Middle Eastern healthcare companies and researchers can tap into Watson much like the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic currently do as a tool that can aid in their healthcare findings.

But it will be a little while at least before Watson can get started in the area.

Right now, IBM is working on teaching Watson Arabic so local residents can better work with the service. And that’s more than just teaching Watson the Arabic equivalents of English words.

IBM is “actually teaching Watson to understand the grammar, the nuances of the culture, and how the spoken word handles the nuances of meaning,” said Rhodin.

Arabic isn’t the only language Watson is being taught. The supercomputer also knows Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese. By teaching Watson different languages, it’s more likely that IBM can spread the technology throughout the globe. The company recently launched Watson in Japan with the help of Japanese telecom company Softbank.

Rhodin estimates that it will take roughly nine months to fully train Watson in Arabic, which is about the same time it takes to train Watson in other languages like Spanish and Japanese.

In the meantime, however, there are a “lot of companies that do a lot of business in English” that can use Watson, said Rhodin.

The move to spread Watson throughout the globe is just another way IBM is attempting to make Watson a big business. While IBM is clearly pushing Watson hard, it currently doesn’t generate as much cash when compared to the company’s other services.

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