By Caesar Keluro
The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) could have an effect on the African society, and its local economies that is greater than the discovery of fire or the industrial revolution. This is why African nations must be prepared to be key actors of its development and not only a bystander. African countries need to look to new technologies, from AI, wearables/sensors, to stimulate their economies. To do so, we will need to adopt a technology strategy appropriate for today’s technology landscape.
A national AI strategy will be key to shaping our destinies and nations, globally, have recognized this and have been developing their national strategies on AI, heralding a new world of consequential impact. The approach we have used in the past decades won’t work today, as innovation is increasingly globalised and driven by the private sector.
While we may not have sufficient resources to invest in every conceivable technology, we can jumpstart the process in partnership with our private sector and friendly nations. We have to make strategic bets in the technologies most likely to rapidly transform food production, climate change, logistics, poverty while hedging against surprises from the negative impact of exponential technologies like AI through investment, collaboration, R&D and channeling all our synergies to defining technological standards and ethics.
Notably, technology alone hardly delivers a decisive advantage, but technology is an enabler for economic and military superiority. When combined with the right organisation, training, and concepts for ‘making things’, technological advantages can translate into improved living standards for all. Through the first nine; months of 2019, VC funding rose to $13.5 billion for 965 AI-related companies in the US. This compares to $16.8 billion raised in the full year 2018. This massive funding rounds are likely to unleash new drug discovery, deeper understanding of diseases, poverty and unlock the full potential of bespoke medicine.
A new world powered by AI
The past 18-24 months have seen the commercial application of AI and machine learning (ML) take off as companies across a numerous of industries embraced AI-infused automation and incorporated them into daily workflows in order to streamline operations in a new world informed by data. True AI is where decision-making is based on self-enhancing algorithms.
African nations face a delicate future with its massive, youthful population. Pair this with a world where production is being automated and country-as-a-digital-platform strategies are disrupting trade and investment, you will see the urgent need for us to transform our economies and society by supporting local talent, innovation and growth in exponential technologies like AI. We have to invest in AI now. We have to forge national AI strategies as well as pan-African AI strategies by working with countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, China, the UAE, Singapore, South Korea, France, and Japan as the world races into an AI-dominant future.
Several analysts predict that millions of all jobs in will be affected by automation over the next two decades, ranging from tasks being made easier by automated systems to jobs being fully replaced. The largest impacts in Africa will be on agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and construction sectors. Since these sectors predominantly employ men, automation has a gendered aspect in Africa and will require careful supervision to alleviate potential social disruption.
Also, with limited research and development happening in Africa, we have to support local AI startups or startups with similar hue. This is particularly important as we encourage them to leveraging developments in machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing to create innovative solutions to a diverse range of issues affecting Africa. African government can encourage greater investment in local talent and technologies by increasing incentives for big tech firms to do applied AI research in their African offices.
We understand that AI sector will develop faster if it works together more closely across sectors, at national and continental levels; and we can do more by supporting civil society groups collaborating on projects and giving feedback to governments. We believe that creating an African or local Centre for Artificial Intelligence, modeled after the Turing Institute in the United Kingdom, would also help support collaboration between industry, academia, and governments both at the national and continental levels. It could help us to commercialise the best ideas and to focus our meagre resources on areas with the highest potential.
What African governments can do
African governments face a huge dilemma providing the critical infrastructure and funding to meet the challenges of this new decade. But it can only stand a chance if it starts strengthening the connections between academia and industry. Creating an AI government fund with its R&D partners can help in developing tools for continued education in AI, broaden AI learning beyond computer science and Mathematics students in public and private universities. We have to teach computational thinking approaches in schools and boost the number of Masters and PhD students in AI and data science.
Also, there’s no AI without a Data infrastructure and that goes with us creating and maintaining a resilient open data infrastructure which can help African nations train data to inform AI applications while keeping a sharp eye on protecting personal privacy. We can do more by marshaling ethics and regulation by bringing data assets inside the scope of competition and driven by a national AI Ethics Council. This can be helped by appointing Embryonic Technology Innovation teams into selected Ministries powered by well-developed guidelines for smart AI procurement.
We must create a multi-stakeholder steering group to develop and promote Africa’s Government Strategy on AI with a network of AI practitioners from all sectors and disciplines – including national and local actors, especially our diaspora brain power – to develop a multi-sector 2030 AI Road Map. With AI working groups in Africa’s legislative houses, we can provide leadership in the global argument on AI.
In all, we believe that supporting AI developments involves continued investment in the infrastructure that supports it – including good quality data, internet connectivity, and legal frameworks such as modern intellectual property law and privacy protections. Critically too, by developing an ethics framework to help guide good decision-making by those who are finding new uses for AI technologies. Like other technologies, AI will need to be used unselfishly, inclusively and ethically in African nations to achieve the greatest benefits for citizens.
Written by Caesar Keluro, Co-Founder/CEO, Nanocentric Technologies Limited. He leads ‘Make In West Africa’, a regional Think-tank. He tweets @kcaesar