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Africa Also Needs Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Africa Also Needs Artificial Intelligence (AI)

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 08-07-2019

It is not news that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is shaking up the world, opening up new frontiers in addressing business and societal challenges. The AI progress metrics show AI has superseded human ability in several applications, including tasks previously thought to be doable only by humans. Businesses and countries are leveraging on this to improve their bottom-lines and make life easier for their workers and citizens respectively. Globally, there was an investment of over 6 billion dollars in AI companies in just 2017. To state that AI is opening up new frontiers, even in well established industries, is not hyperbolic.

The ability of an autonomous vehicle to detect and label objects in its surrounding environment, or identify lane markings, for instance, is crucial to its success. With that recognition development, predictive policing is no longer fictional. The New York Police Department, like other police departments in the United States, are making good use of the AI to significantly enhance their ability to predict where and when crimes are more likely to happen and who may commit them.

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The healthcare industry is not also left out. Although there are often constraints by policies and regulations, for good reasons too, the wave of AI has really been felt in the industry. Machine vision is being applied widely to the diagnosis of various health conditions. From detecting the potential presence of cerebral bleeds to identifying cardiac illnesses from Echocardiography data, AI is introducing efficiency and accuracy in healthcare.

With a population of over one billion, plagued by serious institutional deficits, the African continent presents a tremendous opportunity to cash in on AI for good and to accelerate solutions to fundamental problems like agriculture, quality education, access to healthcare, security, electricity, detection of crimes and corruption, among others.

Artificial intelligence is the driving force of the fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution, driven by steam, created a new manufacturing process. The second was driven by electricity which led to many inventions. The third, which is the one we are living through now, has transformed the world’s economy and many manufacturing activities by going digital. Until now, Africa has not had a good grasp of any of the three revolutions. About 30 percent of Africans still do not have access to clean water,  a solution the first industrial revolution set out to solve. What about electricity? African countries still struggle to meet the demands of electricity  and  the second industrial revolution had solved that.

Over 60 percent of Africans still do not have access to the internet  which is  the main breakthrough of the third industrial revolution and we are still struggling with it. Now, the world is talking about the fourth industrial revolution when we have not even caught up with the rest of the world on the past three revolutions.

A report by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2025, about 45 to 75 million jobs will be automated and over 50 percent of Africa’s current workers have these jobs (World Economic Forum report 2016). With these entire facts, the thought that Africa has lost all hope is inevitable, but no. Africa has a leapfrogging potential to catch up with the world if we act fast now, taking advantage of our human capital. According to this report, more than 60 percent of the Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 25 making it the world’s youngest region.

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China and India are two role-model economies for Africa because our limitations are similar. They have corruption problems like we do, they were not active participants of the first and second industrial revolutions like we were not, and they are densely populated like we are. Despite all of these challenges, these two countries have risen beyond their limits to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies and great contributors of the world’s technological advancement by simply leveraging on their human capital! They simply used the privileges of the internet to regain what they lost in the previous years, building the future from there.

The motivation for going to school just to get a job has to change. The system should enhance innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking, rather than ill-preparing graduates to later become societal liabilities. The young Africans are arguably the only resource the continent has got to leapfrog its development and catch up with the world.

Other regions are on the cusp of Artificial intelligence and there is no better time for Africa to get involved in building skills and making contributions to the development of AI through research and innovation than now. Waiting for the world to research, innovate and develop technologies while we sit and consume the product of their innovation has kept us backward for a long time during the past three revolutions.

A professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the Babcock University, Prof Oludele Awodele said the future of African continent lay in continuous research and investment in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

“African universities and governments need to have a technological roadmap to bring about well-designed custom-made technological-driven smart campuses and cities. As a matter of fact, some of the activities that require humans can be achieved with smart systems and sensors and integrated to get desired results. When our data is intelligent, governments and institutions would be able to make an informed decision which would lead to good decision that would better the lives of the citizens.” he said.

Uyi Stewart, director, strategy, data and analytics, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said “leapfrogging into technology supremacy will require African innovators to rise to the challenge and create African-specific innovations. The African tech space at present leaves quite a lot to be desired. Mindless copying from the west is still a big hindrance to prosperity. With problems such as poverty and illiteracy still being real in Africa, innovators have to create tools that can work in Africa for the African population.”

For Africa to move forward, innovators must dream big enough to solve the problems of the continent. Uyi Stewart describes this as innovating in Africa, for Africa. Even if the innovations are inspired by creations from abroad, they ought to adapt to the Africa setting for them to be efficient. While for most inventors, the main incentive is money, it is important that innovators look first at the overall good that the creation will bring to Africa ahead of money consideration.

“It is the role of African governments to create an enabling and well-regulated environment to encourage local innovation. This is by the formulation of favorable policies as well as extending incentives for brilliant innovations. The freedom to innovate ought to be a provision given by the government for new technologies to emerge”.

Most of the people in Africa’s labour force do not possess the skills required for success during this revolution. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills will be the leading skills in the coming years despite our different opinions if we have any. It is predicted that 65 percent of elementary school students will have jobs that do not currently exist. If we will move forward, our curriculum content needs to change to meet the present day demand. STEM skills need to be taught even more. Africans need to educate, research, innovate, develop.

With a lot of discussion on and implementation of AI round the globe, Africa rather focuses on its propensity to take away jobs in the context of huge unemployment burden; there is also a strong consensus on the potential of AI to address the enormous socio-economic challenges on the continent. According to Awodele, the deployment of AI could lead to loss of jobs if people fold their arms and did not advance technologically. He said anyone who did not want a machine to replace him or at work must be ready to grow technologically or become redundant. The misconception of robots stealing people’s jobs in Africa has been a major setback in AI development and implementation in the region.

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So how can we make adopting new technologies more convenient? Artificial intelligence (AI) can empower average or even mediocre workers to fit better into high-performance environments. The result is raised productivity and the unleashing of innovative business models, which are so often hobbled by the lack of talent.

When one digs into the source of the failures of most of these programmes, it becomes obvious that the problem is poor user interfaces. Crucially, these programmes have to work by understanding how people communicate with each other. Clearly, for such tools to fit into the African enterprise and help spur productivity, much more intelligence is needed to adapt them to their users. In this context a fascinating link between AI and jobs emerges. In the early medium term, say the next 10 to 25 years, AI is more likely to save rather than destroy jobs in many sectors around the world, including Africa. For AI fear-mongers, robots will simply take over end-to-end. Yet the truth is that we are so far away from being able to build such robots.

Africa’s biggest economic challenge today is filling up large sections of its economy with average workers primed to perform average tasks far better than most workers are currently managing to do. The tools that exist to train and empower such workers are dumb. This frustrates enterprises and entrepreneurs who are forced to scale down the absorption of labour to meet expansion and innovation requirements.

With more clever personnel augmentation and empowerment tools, more workers will fit better into more roles in a ­multi-tasking, fast-paced and rapidly mutating work environment, thereby boosting productivity and lifting overall employment levels on the continent.

We are already seeing the impact of near-AI or pseudo-AI capabilities in several segments of the continent’s labour landscape. African software developers, many of whom do not have the experience and exposure of their peers elsewhere, are using archaic tools in building complex enterprise software. Without many of these ever-smarter tools, it is highly unlikely that the thousands of developers filling programming roles on the continent would have been up to scratch. The software being built by tech startups all over the continent would not have been built here, and the jobs they have created would not have existed.

But is AI not too advanced for Africa? Should we be mastering simpler technologies first? Well, the truth is that the days when a society could ‘strategically choose’ to be ‘technologically backward’ are fast disappearing. Technology systems are much too deeply interconnected across global ecosystems for such choices to be viable.

An even more critical point anyway is that AI will actually make technology easier to adopt and harness in Africa. AI, looked at this way, ties strongly with Africa’s current priorities, and African technologists are more primed for it than many might imagine. It is better late than never.


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