She is a graduate of the prestigious Singularity University (SU), California, USA; a former Shell engineer; a Technology Evangelist and an emerging thinker – connecting technology patterns to human development.
Ms. Emem Asikpo Andrew knows many things about exponential technologies and how they would redesign the world we live. She has written about them in Tell Magazine and discussed them in conferences and workshops. With a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Nigeria, and recently a Teaching Fellow in Singularity University, she has got many perspectives to share.
Tekedia is proud to present Ms. Emem Asikpo Andrew – Class Speaker in 2010 SU graduation ceremony – in our Women of Technology Series.
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Tell us your name and what you do or your passion
My name is Ms. Emem Asikpo Andrew. I am passionate about people. I believe that in every human being we have a reflection of God and that every life should be nurtured to achieve its greatest potential. I am passionate about human rights, ending poverty and disease and achieving true gender equality in all spheres of human endeavor.
Nigeria plans to become the 20th economy (in GDP) in the year 2020 under the Vision 2020 program. The federal government has started very bold initiatives. We want your comments on how our government can realize this objective
A plan to become the 20th largest economy by 2020 is a good plan and it is achievable. My concern however is our history of achievements. Historically we have been very poor in delivering on promises. We have had lofty plans for different decades but we have lacked the will and/or capacity to see them through. For me a key initiative that could fast track our economy would be power generation. Let’s move away from centralized power generation to a system where we could have smaller companies providing power to different people. Turn today’s NEPA or PHCN to today’s NITEL. Allow investors to handle power supply from end to end. Produce, distribute and sell power. The government has been lousy at it for 50 years. They won’t get any better in the next 10. We are 150 million strong and we produce barely 10% of the electricity we need. Energy drives the economy, human energy is one thing but the 20 top economies do not depend on human energy alone. They depend on electricity also. Just fixing this or creating an environment where this can be fixed would create more opportunities, innovation and wealth for the country.
Our tertiary educational system has been criticized by many that it has lost its past glory. Yet, the number of Nigerian graduates starting companies and leading big global organizations continues to increase. How do we reconcile this?
As much as I applaud the achievements of Nigerians, I must caution that we should not be carried away by the success of a few. The average Nigerian is resilient and hard working. In every society there exists at least 1% of the population that is very entrepreneurial compared to the rest of the population. If we should use this statistics, then we have 1.5 million Nigerians who have the risk taking ability to be entrepreneurial and these folks are excelling. If we are to look at the numbers again do we have 1.5 million Nigerians starting businesses and leading global organizations? No. How many businessmen are millionaires in world recognized currencies? Maybe just in the region of one or two hundred. We have just two billionaires on the Forbes list I believe. So statistically, we are not doing as well as we should be doing. This is sheer waste of enormous human capacity. With 150 Million people our economy should be booming with services for these people. We are mired down by declining education standards, therefore we cannot compete favorably in the global economy which is driven today by technology and science which all require high standards of education and conducive environments for innovation. Educating the nation for the challenges of the future is a priority. It is indicative that major oil companies for example, formally train Nigerian graduates in basic sciences for at least a year before granting them entry level employment and we all know that most of these companies recruit some of our most highly intelligent and most competitive graduates. This is very instructive and should be a wakeup call for us all to improve the education system.
While researching this interview, we noted that you attended Singularity University. Please share with us the experience and what life has become after it
Life is a journey and it took me through Singularity University (SU). My experience at SU is one that left me with mixed feeling. Feelings of hope and fear for our people. I got to learn about technology and the exponential trends in the field of computing and the drive by scientists to turn everything into data, even biology. And then the quest to make everything smaller – nanotechnology. These two areas in addition to 7 other fields I was trained in made the most impact on me.
In the very near future, the cost of sequencing your genome will be as cheap as $100, with this information you can have personalized medicine, you can know the diseases you are predisposed to and technologically adapt your genetic code to reduce the risk of having them. As we make things smaller, we can create nano particles that could be identical to blood cells and introduce into people’s bodies. If you are predisposed to heart attack, you could have nano red blood cells uploaded into your body and these blood cells would be better at holding oxygen and circulating in your body than the present red blood cells you have today. In the event of a heart attack you could survive for an hour or more till you get medical attention. Today even in the developed world where you have comparatively excellent emergency response system, less than 20% of people who suffer a major heart seizure survive.
I got to meet the IBM Watson before it won Jeopardy and we knew that it would beat the Jeopardy World champions this year. The implication of such a feat is amazing and will affect human lives significantly. One application of this Artificial Intelligence (Watson) could be in the area of medicine. Imagine having this AI and an app on your smartphone and you are a poor villager in Akwa Ibom State but you can create your medical profile on Google or Facebook for example and then text your symptoms in a chat. Watson looks up your profile and history, diagnoses your illness, suggests medical tests and prescribes medications for you. Some people might balk at this but I assure you it would be more accurate than you walking into your village pharmacy to be served by a quack chemist, or waiting endlessly for the overworked doctors at the general hospital. That could revolutionize health care. There is so much.
SU was 10 weeks of insanity really but I left there feeling so afraid for Africa because we are so far behind. We are still struggling with the basics; hunger, disease, leadership, poverty while some of the world has moved on to a competition on who can give the largest amount of money away and how fast the human race can inhabit outer space.
We noticed that you worked in Shell Nigeria for many years. Based on your experience in the energy sector, what could you suggest the nation does to prepare for the post-petroleum era when all this oil is exhausted?
I don’t think that our oil and gas will really ever get exhausted (at least while we still depend heavily on fossil fuels) neither do I think that Oil and Gas would be irrelevant in the next couple decades. But I believe that the fossil fuel civilization is coming to an end. The Stone Age ended, the Middle Ages ended, oil and gas fueled the industrial age and that age has ended but the fuel still remains. It is artificially lingering on. It will end. The sun provides in 4.5 (four and a half) minutes ALL the energy the earth requires for a whole year. The use of fossil fuel is therefore primitive in the face of availability of such a source. The challenge therefore is to device means of harnessing this energy and makes it efficient. As we concentrate on harnessing the energy from the sun and other sources in two or more generations (my grand children I hope) will see diesel and petrol generators only in museums. They will not be able to imagine how we survived with those things, the same way my 7 year old uses the android more intuitively than I can, 50 -70 years from now those kids will wonder why we were so stupid and never figured out how to use the sun and we messed up their planet . Anyway they will be able to harness the abundant energy from the sun to clean up the planet and the earth will still be safe for some time to come.
As a net exporter of energy, Nigeria should be at the forefront oil research and production of alternative energy systems and technologies. That’s the way we could secure and benefit from the future. 50 years can go pretty fast.
We read all the time that electricity is affecting our productivity and development; Tekedia readers would like to know, in your opinion, the best roadmap to solve this problem, permanently
I touched on that earlier on in the interview. My suggestion is that government should get out of the business. Already Nigerians produce their own energy. The first sign of affluence is ‘I pass my neighbor generator’ where everyone wants to buy a bigger generator. Government has tried for 50 years but they can’t solve this problem. Government should get out of the sector. Provide regulation, policy and good incentives for private investors to come into this market. Starting off it will be expensive like the mobile phones and airtime were but as penetration increases, prices will come down and as competition increases, service will improve. The government cannot fix power. They should concentrate on creating an environment that would attract those who can fix it to come fix it.
The youth is the future of any nation. Could you share any message for the Nigerian youth, especially in this technology obsessed 21st century?
Ha. I wouldn’t say that the 21st century is actually technology ‘obsessed’. We have not seen so much yet in technological advancement. We are just beginning; the world is also just warming up. Technology will make everything easier and cheaper. It will make everything faster, a lot faster than what we have today. We will have driverless cars, robots that perform surgery etc most of us will see it in our life time. Technology will grow so fast that to properly understand it and to be able to function in society, human beings would have to interface with computers. It sounds implausible, but right now a lot of us are tied to our smartphones, Blackberry is the most popular in 9ija (Nigeria). That Blackberry in your palm following Moore’s law; in another 7 years could be 16X more powerful and 16X smaller (electronics part) , the only reason why it might not shrink further might be to just give the user a convenient interface to operate it. So it could be a little device like your thumb or flash storage drive for instance. So how small will they be in the next 20 years?
I would say the youth must fall in love with maths, learn to write programs for smart phones. Biotech is the area of the next revolution, humans are outliving their biological bodies, with biotech and we could modify and improve our bodies. Nanotech and artificial intelligence. Those are the technologies that would drive the future and that future is near. Nobody is dominating these areas yet. For programs all you need is a computer and you are in the game. The space is wide open and there is still a lot of room to make your name so go for it.
Let us assume you have got a call from the President and he wants you to develop a technology-driven intervention program in Nigeria. Share with us one thing you will do
I would laugh out loud and check the calendar to be sure it is not April 1st. If it isn’t, then I would go on Facebook, Blackberry and other social media and ask Nigerians the problem they think we should solve and I will scout this country for talent, connect with all our friends, contacts and scientists around the world, analyze the problem, propose solutions and set about implementing them. We would keep it in the national eye. Show back to the country what we are doing, share our research and findings, register the patents that we produce in the process, support scientists to bring their products to market and in the process we will solve this problem and even find solutions to other problems we might not have set out to solve. Basically I would look for a big enough problem (that requires technological solution), and work inside Nigeria and solve it. So that our people will see and know that we have what it takes to solve our own problems. It can be done.
Finally, what is next for you, especially in your mission to get people to appreciate technology and solve problems in Nigeria?
That’s a good question. I am in the process of starting a tech company that is geared towards stimulating competition and collaboration for scientists in Africa. Its aim is to help scientists learn, collaborate and gain support for their innovations. We have inventors in Africa but most times funding and exposure are issues and their products do not come to market or when they do, they fail in the market. So I am working now in this space and trying to create a company that would address this gap.
To Contact Our Guest: Twitter: @Memsyg; facebook.com/emem.andrew Blog http://memsynaija.blogspot.com/