Discovering emerging digital innovation

Tuesday April 23 2019

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Last week, a team of young Kenyans won the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) global award on innovation from their work of leveraging technology to eliminate women genital mutilation in Kenya.

This apex award was created by Unesco’s Global Observatory on Digital Innovation under its exploration network (Netexplo) that scouts for new innovations across the world and brings them to market. 

To achieve their goal, Unesco/Netexplo created an Advisory Board (UNAB) consisting of a global collaborative network of academics that I am privileged to be a member of.

This collaborative network (made up of renowned universities in the field of technology) searches for innovative digital innovations with profound and lasting digital impact on the emerging digital society and recommends them for the global award at their annual innovation forum. 

I-CUT

This year’s Unesco-Netexplo Forum attracted 2,500 entries mostly focusing on the application of artificial intelligence (AI). 

The entries were evaluated through a series of iterations to select top 100 entrees with high potential from which 10 digital innovations with greatest impact were selected. 

Coincidentally, the last 10 innovations emerged from every corner of the world. The Unesco-Netexplo Forum 2019 that attracted 1,500 delegates that voted the winner out of the 10 finalists.  I-Cut, a Kenyan innovation won the prize.

A Selfie by Moez Chakchouk, Unesco’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Purity Achieng, Stacey Adhiambo, Bitange Ndemo and Thierry Happe, Founder Global Observatory on Digital Innovation, celebrates the Kenyan win.

Five teenage girls going by the name Restorers, created a mobile app to fight female genital mutilation in Kenya. Their app, I-Cut, aims at supporting endangered girls by putting them in touch with rescue centers.

The app also “offers medical and legal help to those who have already suffered mutilation. The interface has five functions: ask for help, call the police to rescue someone else, testify, get information and make a donation.”

I-Cut win by Kenyan girls

PROMISING INNOVATORS

The forum highlighted some of the most promising global innovators in the field of digital technologies, who are inventing new forms of education, communication, information, solidarity and management around the world.

Their innovations, including those who didn’t win, will influence the future in the most profound manner, changing the course human-technology interaction. 

Here are some of the top innovations that in my view will change the world in the days to come.

After so many years of grappling with fake news, a British startup, Factmata, has come up with a fact-checking app that is powered by AI.  It promises to offer a set of digital intelligence tools to a voluntary community of fact checkers in order to tackle fake news that is threatening to undermine democracy across the world. In the long run, algorithms should be able to do the job.

Italian/US startup, CuteCircuit, is changing the lives of people with hearing challenge through their Soundshirt, which will enable them to feel music through the skin. Working with the classical orchestra Junge Symphoniker Hamburg, they have managed to enable deaf people to feel music in an immersive way. 

“The Sound Shirt is a connected t-shirt that translates the sounds and intensity of the orchestral instruments into vibrations. The instruments are mapped to different parts of the shirt and vibrations are felt at different places on the body depending on the music.”

'AI TRANSLATOR'

As the application of AI intensifies, more questions are being asked about how the machines make their decisions. 

Been Kim, a researcher at Google Brain, is trying to make it possible for ordinary people to understand the AI decisions and make it more responsible.

To do this, she created TCAV (Testing with Concept Activation Vectors), a “translator for humans”.

With TCAV, she hopes to open up what she referred to as “the black box of decision-making algorithms and makes them intelligible to humans.

Her solution lets us know the weight given to each concept in the AI decision-making process.”

CRITICAL ROLES

AI will play a critical role in helping women to overcome domestic violence.  A South African startup, AI for Good, rAInbow has developed a chatbot through Facebook Messenger to help victims of domestic violence.

The app, “helps identify abusive or abnormal situations between couples, which is not always easy when immersed in a toxic relationship. The chatbot informs victims of domestic violence about their rights, encourages them to seek help or simply helps them survive on a daily basis.”

Cisse, the lead researcher in Google’s AI Africa Lab, presented case studies on the application of AI in agriculture and healthcare across the continent.  AI has great potential for Africa, he says, citing case studies on how it has helped farmers identify crop diseases and deal with them, in the process improving food security.  

AI has also impacted the health sector by providing health solutions that will be key in achieving universal healthcare in the continent.

DATA SECURITY

Closing the Forum, Senator Catherine Morin Desailly reiterated the importance of greater data security.

“It is only through human capacity building that we can be able to fight emerging global oligopolies. Otherwise we suffer the risk of digital and knowledge divide, “she said while acknowledging the fact that AI poses great danger if we do not embrace ethics in developing these new applications.

Innovations bring us closer to tackling major problems facing humanity today. In pursuit of solutions, we must remember that algorithms, just like humans, have biases and as such we must maintain the highest ethical standards as we intensify use of AI in virtually every aspect of our lives.

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