Where is Africa in the age of AI?

Where is Africa in the age of AI?

By Samuel Nwite

In 2016, when an Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed by Google’s DeepMind, beat the European Champion of the Chinese game Go, it set an unprecedented record that paved the way for a future where humans will have to compete for activities with machines. Although this future has been anticipated by many, it’s coming faster than we think.

In April 2019, Dr. Camilo Ortiz tweeted an amazing video of his Tesla car driving him all the way home from work, with no input from him: ” Changing lanes, merging on and off 3 highways, in rush-hour, in the rain, in New York City!” He ended the Tweet with one word, “Stunned.”

It was something that many people could have dismissed from their imagination in the 90s. But that’s just a segment of the proliferating Artificial Intelligence in North America. Other sectors like the medical field have long been enjoying their bits before now. And that’s what we see in Europe and Asia as well. Mouth gaping tech breakthroughs of machines acting in the stead of humans!

In May 2019, in Tijiani China, Titan, a human sized robot set the atmosphere of the third World Intelligence Congress (WIC) on fire when it started singing the theme song of “The Transformers” moving its lips and dancing to the beats. Awed jaws dropped in amazement, not only for the wonderment, but also for how far Asia has leapfrogged in AI science with China taking the lead: from smart homes to smart manufacturing, to autonomous vehicles, to health checks to education, and city management. And that begs the question: Where is Africa in the age of AI?

When Google opened the first AI lab center in Africa, in April, headed by the Senegalese Mustapha Cisse, it was widely welcomed as the impact of such development could be felt by the case of a Tanzanian farmer who diagnosed the problem with her cassava farm by merely hovering her phone over wilting cassava plant. The TensorFlow app, a Google AI machine,  detected the problem and proffered solutions. That means, Africa needs Artificial Intelligence, not only to solve her farm problems, but also to curtail deficiencies in tech, healthcare and efficient labor. But the fact that Google, an American company, has to set up the first AI lab center in Africa, in 2019, tells so much about the continent’s lackluster perception of tech developments and how she could benefit from it: a problem that could be traced to poor education foundations, mental laziness and zero visionary leadership.

Most African schools don’t have the capacity of technological mental development. Talk of STEM and ICT, there are few basic schools in Africa that could present such a syllabus. We are talking about a continent with one of the most vibrant median age (19) in the world. So a youngster with a knack for tech will most likely lose his chances to develop, due to lack of tech supportive functional system. But that’s not all.

Some Africans have found a way to scale through the fundamental basic education hurdles and develop themselves in the science and technology world. For instance, Mustapha Cisse, taught himself AI, and developed to the point of being the head of the only AI center in Africa. There are few others like him in Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda etc. people who need fund for research, coaching and AI development. Alas, Africa has learned nothing from their counterparts, like the EU that dishes out grants for research and tech development. The FP7 is one of those, with many branches like the ERA. One of its projects, the PROSYD, was funded with 2.1 million Euro, in a bid to find a solution to errors in silicon chips. The research was a success.

In 2008, when Elon Musk, proposed the expensive shift from building sports cars to more family-friendly Sedans, thereby widening its all electric vehicles project. The US government responded with $465 million loan, through the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program. And so came the birth of Tesla’s self-driving cars.  In Africa, apart from countries like Mauritius that is fostering tech ideas through the Mauritius Africa FinTech Hub, (MAFH) and Rwanda that is showing innovative spirit recently, others are more or less interested. So tech startups in Africa have to be privately funded, although companies like Google have been increasing their tech grants for Africa recently, the insouciant attitude of African governments is posing another problem.

One of the worries expressed by Mustapha Cisse is the inability of African nations to forge ties with their local AI expertise. Just like countries like China and France did and it resulted in huge success. So there is a problem of acceptance by African nations. Maybe due to lack of vision, or the fear that AI may do more harm than good. Considering the fact that it could, among other things, generate fake videos, thereby discredit the long held “seeing is believing” notion. This concern cannot be dismissed, and at the same time, shouldn’t be a threat when legislation is vibrant and swift. Other continents know that such dangers exist yet they embrace and nurture AI, seeking ways to contain ‘the would be’ excesses.

The following recommendations have been made as a way to curtail AI concerns:

  1. Being ahead of technological developments and encouraging uptake by public and private sectors.
  2. Prepare for socio-economic changes brought about by AI.
  3. Ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework.

But these aren’t before our mindset is prepared to accept the technological and scientific realities that are leaving prints of obsolescence on African soil. Cisse gave a practical advice on how to achieve this. He said: “we need to develop a coordinated plan to encourage AI education across the continent, incentivize entrepreneurship in the AI sector, and facilitate collaboration between AI researchers and experts in healthcare, agriculture and other sciences. We need a pan-African strategy, a set of ambitious goals for AI education, research, development and industrialization.”

The disregard of this advice will only mean one thing: that Africa will still be crawling when the rest of the world is flying with AI.

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2 thoughts on “Where is Africa in the age of AI?

  1. Alliance for AI is doing exactly what Cisse is talking about. Read this 3rd party article describing it http://blog.enterfive.com/artificial-intelligence-aiaint-scary-for-africa/

    Pan-African coordinated effort. Coordinated education by the people (not waiting on government policy). Connecting innovators to startups. Appropriate/ accurate reporting & story-telling at global events. Advising governments on AI policy around regional infrastructure developments.

    As Africans, we will need to solve this ourselves and should celebrate the successes of home-grown organizations to inspire more.


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