How Africa can ride the artificial intelligence wave

Fatim Cissé
By Fatim Cissé
General Manager, Dux/Aspiring Minds

Posted on Wednesday, 12 June 2019 15:18
A robotic arm collects a pre-packaged dish from cold storage, done according to the diner’s order at Haidilao's new artificial intelligence hotpot restaurant in Beijing, China, November 14, 2018. Reuters/Jason Lee

Africa might be lagging behind where Artificial Intelligence is concerned, but it's not too late for the continent to jump on the AI bandwagon and claim a piece of the pie

There’s no need to beat ourselves up. Few nations, including European countries, saw artificial intelligence (AI) coming. In ten to thirty years’ time, AI is going to cause a major shift. Like a tsunami, it will disrupt the world’s political, social and economic ecosystems.

AI will be present in all fields and sectors of activity, from primary to tertiary.

Having stagnated for the last thirty years, research on AI has developed rapidly thanks to its main feedstock: data. Endless reserves of data held by US-based tech giants GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and their Asian counterparts BATX (Baidou, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi) boast a self‐regenerative capacity.

These companies, mainly based in the US and China, hold almost of all the world’s data reserves and are the largest producers of AI which makes their global dominance inevitable. Europe is struggling to catch up, and unfortunately the region’s best developers are moving to the US where they will further increase the production capacity of GAFAM and BATX firms at the expense of companies in their home countries.

Can Africa, which does not exist on the “intelligence economy” map, still keep up with this trend?

This question is further reinforced by what our recent history has shown us. Trying to join revolutions which we did not anticipate in the first place, despite seemingly favourable conditions, very rarely produces the right results.

  • Look at agriculture in Africa, which has over 60% of arable land but remains at a 5% agricultural industrialisation rate.

With little of the data, the battle for AI production seems to be lost in advance.

Some countries are trying to respond by creating schools for programming and coding. But if their environment is not enriched, we risk that the next thousand African coders and developers will follow the example of their European counterparts…

Nevertheless, all is not lost. The next wave, that is the use of AI applications to accelerate the development of our countries and significantly improve our standard of living, is here. These applications created and enriched with AI will allow Africans to access, at a lower cost, the same level of service quality developed countries enjoy.

In the field of education, these applications will make it possible to provide excellent programmes in line with international standards and adapted to our specific needs. In the health sector, patient care, from diagnosis to treatment, will be more effective. Even in traditional sectors such as agriculture, the use of AI will improve the productivity and profitability of our production.

Although it is still difficult to accurately predict the direct effects of AI, we can say with certainty that the social and economic impact of its introduction into our lives will be phenomenal.

For African countries, the challenge then is not to produce AI, but rather to define the best strategy that will enable them to incorporate these new products into the continuous improvement of our daily lives. This integration must begin with the redesign and re-engineering of our education systems and curricula, which should focus on producing skills that can take full advantage of AI.

In this new ‘intelligent’ world, technical tasks or hard skills (accounting, radiology, surgery, driving vehicles, translation, customer service…), will be performed by AI applications, with greater reliability and acuity than humans can provide. Countries like Canada predict that more than 42% of current trades will disappear within the next ten years.

The world of work will be totally disrupted.

The overhaul of our education system could be based on the following axes:

  • significantly improve teacher compensation to attract and retain the best teachers
  • change the structure of teaching, that is to say teach our students to learn
  • boost acquisition of soft skills, rather than focus solely on technical skills

To effectively apply this strategy will require a continental rather than a national approach, and would have to be carried out now and not tomorrow.

This opinion piece was first published in Jeune Afrique

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