Affiliated organizations : Access Partnership, University of Pretoria
Site of publication : accesspartnership.com
Type of publication : Report
Date of publication : November 2018
What is AI ?
AI is a constellation of technologies that enable machines to act with higher levels of intelligence and emulate human capabilities to sense, comprehend, and act.
Today we are experiencing an unprecedented period of technological innovation across various sectors that is driving the growth of AI. The two critical factors driving this growth are the increase of digitised data in the global economy and the unlimited access to computing power, and lower costs for data storage now available over the cloud.
What will AI mean for Africa ?
In Africa, AI can help with some of the region’s most pervasive problems: from reducing poverty and improving education, to delivering healthcare and eradicating diseases, addressing sustainability challenges — and from meeting the growing demand for food from fast-growing populations to advancing inclusion in societies.
In addition, AI is fundamentally reshaping how work is done, allowing for a more efficient allocation of resources leading to increased productivity and, in the case of government, improving the delivery of services to citizens.
AI is set to fuel new economic growth. In the case of agriculture, the weak supply chain, low productivity, and vulnerability to climate heighten the risks of food scarcity and agricultural distress. Moreover, technology adoption has been slow and resource usage is inefficient. AI, along with machine learning, satellite imagery, and advanced analytics has the potential to improve productivity and efficiency at all of the stages of the agricultural value chain.
Health systems in Africa face several structural challenges. There are rich use cases for AI in the healthcare field: empower and supplement staff, improve public health policy, improve healthcare delivery, better diagnostics and detection, and tailor medical intervention.
In Africa, AI can help with some of the region’s most pervasive problems: from reducing poverty and improving education, to delivering healthcare and eradicating diseases, addressing sustainability challenges — and from meeting the growing demand for food from fast-growing populations to advancing inclusion in societies
In the case of public services, governments’ ability to ensure efficient use of resources in the delivery of public services is impaired due to factors such as corruption and lack of transparency, as well as public service delivery modes that struggle to respond to present day needs.
Through automation, AI technologies can significantly streamline processes and reduce costs: it can ease administrative burdens, paperwork, and backlogs, increasing public sector efficiency and the speed at which public services can be delivered. This will allow public sector managers to resolve resource allocation constraints, redirecting the staff where they can be most productive.
Finally, AI tools will enhance citizen participation. They can provide new platforms for citizens to assess the quality, adequacy, and effectiveness of public services as well as express their needs and preferences.
Financial sector development has been identified as a key factor in reducing poverty in developing economies. AI has the potential to achieve this by changing the way Africans access financial services, save money, invest, and get insured.
Education is one of the areas where AI is poised to have great impact. This technology can be used to automate basic activities, like grading, freeing up time for teachers to perform other important tasks, including interacting with students, preparing for class, or working on professional development.
African governments should seek to establish working groups focused on applications of AI for education to support the development and implementation of AI tools and techniques in this important sector.
Who are Africa’s AI stakeholders ?
Policy-makers are at the centre of the development of AI: government is uniquely capable of taking a broad view of AI and its impacts, promoting the conditions for its growth, and addressing the challenges and questions that arise from its use.
Universities and research institutions are the seedbed for AI ecosystems and offer fertile ground where leading scientists and engineers can experiment and try out their new ideas. AI is increasingly gaining prominence as a specialisation in academic and research institutions across Africa. Existing programs share the common goal of fostering research that leads to the development of AI solutions and applications that will help solve some of the continent’s most pressing challenges.
Industry is key to the creation of a thriving AI ecosystem in Africa as the main developers of AI technology. From established players to entrepreneurs, startups, and SMEs, industry creates innovative products; provides invaluable knowledge, insight, and expertise to government for effective policymaking; and contributes to the development of local talent and skills for Africa’s growing youthful population.
African governments should seek to establish working groups focused on applications of AI for education to support the development and implementation of AI tools and techniques in this important sector
All parties benefit when the right mechanisms are in place to enable collaboration and knowledge transfer between the public sector, academia, and industry. Africa’s emerging tech industry is helping to bridge the gap with developed economies by using technology as a catalyst for African growth.
Though sometimes overlooked, civil society has a vital role in ensuring an AI ecosystem is robust and responsible. It can play an important role in collecting, disseminating, and analysing data for use by government (such as agenda setting and policy development), industry, and academia.
What are the challenges ?
Many are concerned that AI will eliminate jobs, worsen inequality, or erode incomes. While most do find that some jobs will disappear, many more will be transformed into jobs that require different skill sets, while other entirely new jobs will be created. Consistently over time, technology has proved to be “a great job-creating machine’’.
Major, transformative technologies, as AI will prove to be, are capable of building entirely new sectors of the economy.
Despite the fast growth of AI technology, few countries – including developed countries – have the education and skills systems in place to equip their workers to reap the benefits. Applications of AI are poised to change the nature of work in ways education systems are not yet prepared to grapple with.
There are an estimated 267 million individuals not using the Internet in Africa, and approximately 53 million households. Without sufficient connectivity, entire regions will be excluded from all that this technology can offer.
The inter-related issues of insufficient infrastructure and lack of affordability are the key obstacles. An estimated 30 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is beyond the reach of even the backbone network, let alone last mile links to access the Internet. Governments should seek to develop and implement policies to enhance connectivity and affordability.
AI opens new frontiers for economic transformation — and morality.
AI’s ability to create a richer society could be used to contribute to the accumulation of wealth in a few hands, thereby increasing inequality and threatening political unrest. Moreover, these practices could easily lead to discrimination based on age, gender, ethnic background, health conditions or social background.
All parties benefit when the right mechanisms are in place to enable collaboration and knowledge transfer between the public sector, academia, and industry. Africa’s emerging tech industry is helping to bridge the gap with developed economies by using technology as a catalyst for African growth
Machine learning processes are only as good as the data that are fed to them. This is why biases, deeply-rooted in human society, can and do creep in. This is highly relevant for Africa, where users are likely to import machine-learning algorithms developed and trained elsewhere with data that may not recognise or carry bias towards large segments of the African population.
African stakeholders should work together to ensure AI applications are developed by teams with diverse demographic, gender, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.
How can Africa promote AI ?
One of the driving forces behind AI advancement in several countries is the development of a national strategy to support research and development, as well as allocation of funds to realise it.
Policy-makers can design policies that encourage the development of AI and incentivise innovation, while protecting citizens. African governments should consider a proactive approach and measures aimed at ensuring countries have a reliable and supportive infrastructure; a robust regulatory and policy framework; a collaborative environment where all stakeholders can leverage each other’s experience; and the right conditions for AI to be developed in a socially responsible way.
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