IBM Canada is working with Goldcorp to bring its Watson cognitive technology to the mining industry, experimenting with the data-analysis system at Goldcorp’s Red Lake mine in northwestern Ontario.

Focusing on exploration efforts, Watson, which specializes in analyzing and interpreting information that is not necessarily structured in a database, will store and analyze about 60 years’ worth of data on the Red Lake site to help geologists determine what areas might prove to be valuable or to alert them to potentially unsafe situations.

“The first step is to see if Watson can make that data more consumable for our geologists,” said Luis Canepari, vice-president of technology at Goldcorp. “It could organize it in a fashion that’s a lot easier to understand and access. So, that’s a huge win right there.”

After that, the hope is that Watson will learn to “think like a geologist and find patterns that we didn’t find before,” Canepari said. It could, for example, be trained to look out for specific variables that are high predictors of gold.

Goldcorp is in the process of collecting and uploading the data into Watson and Canepari said the first results likely will not come for another year or more. The partnership was announced in March, when IBM showed off how its technology can support exploration at Goldcorp and Integra Gold’s Disrupt Mining event at this year’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto.

Watson technology first debuted on the game show Jeopardy! and has since been successful in the health-care field, by helping cancer patients find the latest available treatments and clinical trials, said IBM Global Business Services partner Mark Fawcett. But IBM has broadened its focus, branching out into the automotive, finance and now mining sectors.

“For the areas of gold exploration or other tough business problems that mining companies are facing, IBM probably wouldn’t have been a company that came to mind with regards to helping to solve the problem,” Fawcett said. “We believe that through this partnership, that perception will change.”

As exploration becomes tougher and gold deposits increasingly harder to find, Fawcett said miners need groups like IBM to improve results. He said IBM is working with “a fair number” of other mining companies to see how Watson could help them, not just in exploration but also on the operational side, finding efficiencies and ways to reduce costs. He said the companies are choosing not to be named for now.

For Canepari, Goldcorp’s dive into Watson’s technology is a no-brainer. “I believe mining in general is one of those industries that, because of the downturn of the economy for the past five to 10 years, hasn’t benefitted as much as other industries from technology investments,” Canepari said. “We are ripe for a change, we are behind.”