The CES Blackout and Africa’s Lessons on Leapfrogging

The CES Blackout and Africa’s Lessons on Leapfrogging

There was blackout yesterday during the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) event. CES is the global preeminent ecosystem for showcasing the latest advances in consumer technologies and products. For two hours around 12 noon local time, lights went off. Just like that, displays from Samsung, LG and Sony had no juice and “displayed” nothing. The AI systems and voice assistants went silent: The most important technology in the arena – electricity – was not working.

That electricity may be stale, non-exciting, but its impact was evident to all the participants. Yes, the company that presented the most important product during the CES was the local electricity distribution company that powered the venue. Of course, American advancement has relegated that company from the limelight, but events like the CES blackout should remind us why electricity remains a solid infrastructure.

CES — the official name and former acronym for the Consumer Electronics Show — is an annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association. (wikipedia)

CES is the world’s gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies. It has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years — the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace. Owned and produced by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), it attracts the world’s business leaders and pioneering thinkers.(source: CES)

This is a clear reminder that there are things in life you cannot leapfrog. CES made it back to its planned programs because they have fixed the electricity problem. But imagine if that darkness is the normal; simply, all those exciting technological advances would be stalled.

So, when they tell you that AI, 3D, and the host of them would leapfrog Africa ahead of the world, please remind them that you cannot leapfrog some critical infrastructures that make the world of technology function. Those infrastructures include electricity, legal systems, education, health systems, etc.

The Las Vegas Convention Center is old. It was opened about 60 years ago and needs to be upgraded. That is the most important infrastructure in the CES event with its water systems, electricity, cooling systems, etc. Forget the AI, driverless cars and showers which work with Alexa voice. Without the core infrastructure, all those advances are muted.

CES show (Source: PC Tech)

Until Africa invests in infrastructures, our emergence would remain an illusion. You cannot leapfrog darkness; you turn on light to make darkness disappear. Yesterday, after two hours, the light came and the systems rebooted. The show continued. So, they got the blackout out. They did not try to create apps hoping that darkness would not matter.

Quartz in a newsletter said it all: “It all feels like a not-so-gentle reminder that, regardless of how great our technology is, some elements are out of our control and no great leaps forward can be made without a solid infrastructure”. The competitive advantage of the Western world is that solid infrastructures at scale exist.  The Like buttons, AI and voice commands are simply the extensions of that universe.

If you think, as a government, that you can create apps for farmers without fixing access to markets through good roads, and expect those farmers to leapfrog the world, you have failed in your visioning city. Our AI and driverless cars right now is electricity, water systems and decent roads. If we cannot fix those, we have no reason to ever use the word “leapfrog” because it would not happen. Yes, you could see marginal progress but those are ephemeral with no core in advancing the welfare of the citizens.


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