Artificial Intelligence can solve many of Africa's challenges

Monday September 17 2018

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not entirely new in Africa, two critical conferences, AI expo Africa 2018: Automation and Intelligence for the Future and Deep Learning Indaba at Stellenbosch University, held this month in Cape Town, South Africa, herald a new era for AI in the continent.

Africa is taking up and embracing this emerging technology that teaches machines to do things that require intelligence when done by humans.

Many people ask why do such a thing if intelligent machines will render many people jobless. Well, these machines learn to do complex things that ordinary humans cannot do.

For example, through facial recognition technology, the computer is capable of searching for a specific individual from one million views. The benefit to humans in terms of security is obvious.


The AI expo provided a platform to allay fears of AI to industry captains and sought to focus on real world applications and trends driving the AI economy in Africa and creating the largest business-focused AI Community across the region.


Indeed, these conferences come on the heels of new reports, notably the PWC report in Britain, that has reassured sceptics that AI will create as many jobs as it will destroy.

In my keynote speech, I emphasised the fact that Africa will miss the point if the continent listened more to sceptics and failed to prepare for the emerging new world order – the fourth industrial revolution – that in my view was ushered unto the world at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos at the beginning of this year.

It was noted that this revolution “is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”


Among other technologies that jointly work with AI is Blockchain. In an article by online journal Medium, titled: “The convergence of AI and Blockchain: what’s the deal?  Why a decentralized intelligence may affect our future?” Francesco Corea says:

It is undeniable that AI and blockchain are two of the major technologies that are catalysing the pace of innovation and introducing radical shifts in every industry. Each technology has its own degree of technical complexity as well as business implications but the joint use of the two may be able to redesign the entire technological (and human) paradigm from scratch.   

The fusion of these technologies is redefining organisations across the world and giving rise to new business models that no one could have imagined only a few years ago.

To put this into perspective, I have attempted to explain how different technological waves have enabled different business models and challenged us to think of what could be emerging out of these transformative technologies in our time. 

Internet and Mobile technologies gave us new businesses as shown in figure below. Blockchain is billed to be the latest wave. In its formative stages, it is already disrupting supply chains as we know them today.


Innovation adoption wave. GRAPHIC| BITANGE NDEMO

More is likely to come out of this wave but the question I ask is: Are we ready to exploit the opportunities presented by this technology?

I am convinced that this time round, Africa will rise up to the occasion.

The Deep Learning event at Stellenbosch University brought together hundreds of young people from across the continent to strengthen African ​​Machine Learning. 


Governments must begin to build upon this voluntary exercise and invest in human resource capacity around these emerging technologies, ensure data privacy of its citizens and build the supporting infrastructure and legal framework.

It is not a matter of choice to build human resource capacity but an imperative, since Africa cannot live in an island when the rest of the world is moving on. 

Africa has the benefit of a population dividend. Its educated young people can become major players and this is already happening in some cases. 

Google, the giant American company, opened its first Africa AI research centre in Accra, Ghana. IBM, another American giant company, has its Research Labs in Nairobi, Kenya. This is in addition to many technology innovation hubs in cities like Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg, Cairo and Accra.


And just in case you didn’t know, AI in Africa is already creating waves across the world.  The robot that the Saudi Government granted citizenship, Sophia, was partly developed in Ethiopia. 


Sophia – a robot partly developed in Ethiopia. GRAPHIC| REUTERS

The potential in AI to drive the development of a robust manufacturing sector is enormous.

As in any venture, there are risks to AI, but there is more to gain in leveraging the technology to deal with some of the problems of our time.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito