'power of science'

AI will be used to design malaria drugs, says Bill Gates

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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Posted on July 14, 2023 07:00

 © Bill Gates argues for a fresh take on the global architecture to tackle the century’s biggest challenges / rights reserved
Bill Gates argues for a fresh take on the global architecture to tackle the century’s biggest challenges / rights reserved

A child under five dies from malaria every minute, says the WHO, with Nigeria’s cases highest at 23% each year. For Bill Gates, AI can change this.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly shaping human experiences and interactions. Chatbots have replaced humans in a number of corporate settings; Midjourney is able to create realistic photos and images with just a few words in written prompt; and ChatGPT can go as far as to create stories, form essays and write to you like a close friend.

So, what else can AI do? Bill Gates thinks it can help eradicate malaria.

The philanthropist has revealed that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently put out a “great challenge” to the public on AI and how it could be used in promoting well-being while also taking language models into consideration.

He said the foundation has received 1,300 proposals, half of which are from Africa, and that in October he will be visiting Senegal  where winners of the contest will be celebrated.

Solutions, inevitably, need to be developed by and catered for Africans if they are to meet the needs of the continent. “We need AI capability here in Africa. We need AI experts here in Africa. We need to adapt to African languages in health,” Gates said on a recent trip to Lagos.

The African challenge

“You know the challenges of health in Africa are very different so we need the data sets that go in so that if you can’t get to a doctor – which many Africans can’t – and you’re talking to it in your native language, it has the ability to diagnose you know that’s Dengue, that’s yellow fever, that’s malaria.”

The Microsoft co-founder believes that AI could help in tackling malaria if it is properly utilised and if equality is assured. Until now, profit has been guiding the pace of innovation, which has only deepened inequity, Gates said.

“AI is going to be used for things like designing malaria drugs,” he said. “I’m a huge believer in the power of science and innovation to help people lead long, healthy lives, but one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that the benefits don’t automatically reach everyone.

“To do that, the people creating new breakthroughs, the people funding them and the people getting them into the world all need to prioritise equity.”

Even so, the Microsoft co-founder says there is a need for governments to increase public health funding. He notes that in Nigeria, the government spending on each individual is just $10 a year, which is too low given the fact that poorer African countries are spending more on their citizens.

Nigeria should be spending at least $30 on each citizen as far as health spending goes – a sentiment he brought up during separate meetings with President Bola Tinubu and Nigeria’s 36 governors.

Moreover, “the funding situation is very tricky right now because the big donors including Europe and the US are spending massive money on things related to the Ukrainian war”, he said. “They’re sending civilian aid, military aid and setting aside money for rebuilding, for refugees and as you may have seen in the latest OECD report, aid to Africa is down to 7%.”

The tech divide

Nigeria has witnessed a boom in the tech sector in recent years and is home to five unicorns worth $1bn each. According to Disrupt Africa’s ‘2022 Tech Funding Report’, Nigeria is the best-funded country in Africa, with a minimum of 180 start-ups. Nigeria also makes up for nearly 30% of Africa’s funded ventures.

However, the start-up sector has only widened inequality given the burgeoning gap between the urban tech-savvy citizen and the rural population.

“As great as these [fintech] apps are for those who have them, they’re a good example of how progress has not been distributed equitably… You’ve got seamless access to accounts and payments on your phone, but if your loved ones live in a rural part of the country, chances are they do not have that same access,” he said.

“Take AI as an example. I’m excited about AI’s potential to save and improve lives, but that won’t happen if profit is the only motive,” he said.

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