Affiliated Organisation : University of Pretoria
Site of publication : up.ac.za
Type of publication : Paper
Date of publication : 2018
The rapidly developing set of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies has the potential to solve some of the most pressing challenges that impact Sub-Saharan Africa and drive growth and development in core sectors:
- Agriculture will be done more efficiently and effectively, raising yields.
- Healthcare will be better tailored, higher quality, and more accessible, improving outcomes.
- Public services will be more efficient and more responsive to citizens, enhancing impact.
- Financial services will be more secure and reach more citizens who need them, expanding access.
Forward thinking policy-makers, innovative startups, global technology partners, civil society groups, and international global stakeholders are already mobilising to promote the growth of a vibrant AI ecosystem in Africa. However, there remain structural challenges that can hamper the development of a healthy AI ecosystem in Africa:
- Education systems will need to adapt quickly, and new frameworks need to be created for workers and citizens to develop the skills they need to thrive.
- Broadband coverage will need to expand rapidly — specifically in rural areas — in order for all citizens and businesses to reap the benefits.
- Ethical implications regarding the fair, secure, and inclusive use of AI applications also must be addressed through collaboration and engagement to ensure AI systems earn trust.
- Ensuring a deeper, broader, and more accessible pool of data is available will also be key to enable researchers, developers, and users to drive AI.
As with other transformative and revolutionary technologies, there are challenges inherent in the development of AI. Governments can embrace these challenges and benefit from AI by creating clear roadmaps to guide the adoption of this technology. They should recalibrate their laws and legal frameworks to support data-driven technologies and innovation-driven growth; strengthen the supporting infrastructure for development; and set the tone of a collaborative approach that allows all stakeholders to share their expertise, insights, and build trust. With the right mix of policies, Africa and its citizens can reap the benefits of the transformations in the years to come.
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
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 will also generate new, high-value jobs requiring technical skills, such as network engineers in the banking sector or web programmers in the retail industry.
Who are Africa’s AI stakeholders?
Policy-makers are at the centre of the development of AI. As the technology expands into countries’ economies and societies, governments are increasingly active, both as policymakers and users of the technology. While many stakeholders play different roles, 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. Policy-makers determine the legal, regulatory, and business environment that rewards innovation, investment, and technology-based development.
Governments run national education systems, research institutes, and many skilling initiatives that equip workers to participate in the AI economy and can contribute to AI advancements. Finally, governments are a critical platform for dialogue and bringing together stakeholders.
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. It is also within their walls that some of the most challenging questions on the impact of the technology are debated, providing an invaluable source of reference for policymaking.
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 will also generate new, high-value jobs requiring technical skills, such as network engineers in the banking sector or web programmers in the retail industry
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.
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. Civil society can act as watchdog to hold government and industry accountable and ensure they fulfil their responsibilities. In this same vein, civil society also has an important role in calling attention to the ethical and social implications that must be addressed in the development of AI, ensuring that it is human-centred and capable of delivering tangible benefits for the African population.
What are the challenges?
Many are concerned that AI will eliminate jobs, worsen inequality, or erode incomes. Many studies have been conducted to examine this issue. 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. Many jobs will continue to require uniquely human skills that AI and machines cannot replicate, such as creativity, collaboration, abstract and systems thinking, complex communication, and the ability to work in diverse environments.
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.
First, at the primary and secondary education level, education needs to refocus on core general skills and specific AI-related technical skills. Improved STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills, including baseline capabilities in mathematics and types of coding, will be important to allow people to assume the high technology jobs that will arise out of AI. Beyond building a workforce capable of building AI tools, it is also important to build a workforce that is an effective user of AI tools, meaning fundamental digital literacy, problem solving, and collaboration skills are crucial.
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. Civil society can act as watchdog to hold government and industry accountable and ensure they fulfil their responsibilities
AI depends on high quality broadband. This creates an obvious problem for Africa: given the continent’s many connectivity challenges, people must be brought online before they can fully leverage the benefits of AI. There are an estimated 267 million individuals not using the Internet in Africa, and approximately 53 million households. Within these numbers, there are substantial inequalities: while approximately 22 percent of urban populations have access to the Internet, this number falls to just 10 percent for rural populations. There are also similar divides between men and women, the youth and mature populations, and upper versus lower income groups. Without sufficient connectivity, entire regions will be excluded from all that this technology can to offer.
AI opens new frontiers for economic transformation — and morality. Ethically built and used AI could help promote equality and fairness, but poor or malicious design risks exacerbating existing social problems in new ways. 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. Similarly, AI could be used to gather and analyse the data individuals make available in a growing number of categories, concentrating an increasing amount of predictive power in the hands of a few companies. This could allow exploitation or a move from predicting behaviour to directing it.
Artificial intelligence is an important opportunity for the continent of Africa. If governments can successfully navigate the challenges, AI can be a driver of growth, development, and democratisation. It has the potential to enhance productivity growth by expanding opportunities in key sectors for Africa’s development. However, the obstacles in the way require serious policy responses. AI will mean substantial adjustments for workers and business and opens new ethical questions that require thoughtful responses. Labour and ethical questions are compounded by higher hurdles specific to Africa. These efforts will not be easy, but the path forward is clear. Success will depend on the ability of governments to foster collaboration among all stakeholders.
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