A few years from now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the driving force behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will potentially change everything about human knowledge, work and almost certainly change how people live. This change will also resonate on the African continent and Google is helping to make that happen.

Google is making a big bet on AI for its future. In 2016 alone, it invested $30 billion on artificial intelligence and machine learning research.

Google has been active in Africa for a while now but the company decided to take a different route for the continent. For the time the search giant has traversed the African market, it has opted to strengthen Africa’s educational institutions by providing infrastructure and software. And then, build technology communities from those institutions (Google’s university-based Developer Groups).

The company has implemented other giant projects in Africa with the aim of extending its influence on the continent.

Earlier this year, Google launched Project Loon for Africa, a project that will release a network of giant balloons to bring Internet access to remote regions of rural Kenya. The firm’s antennae-dangling fleet will ride the wind high above parts of the East African country.

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

Bringing connectivity closer (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

In April this year, Google released Google Go in South Africa in an effort to address the concerns of weak data connectivity and high data costs.  

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

Did Google leave Africa in the dark?

Of course not.

For years, problems of poor infrastructure, last-mile Internet connectivity, among others, have continued to hamper Africa’s development when it comes to Internet technology. Throughout Google’s stay in Africa, the firm wasn’t ignoring Africa. Rather, it was trying to find a solution for the continent.

That solution has finally arrived, revealing itself in digital skills training for millions of Africans, massive investments in infrastructure and Africa’s burgeoning startup ecosystem. The most recent solution is Google’s announcement of an Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Accra, Ghana. According to the firm, Moustapha Cisse, a Senegalese AI pioneer and expert, will run the lab.

Why Moustapha?

While studying for a Maths and Physics degree in Senegal, Moustapha had started designing an algorithm for a strategic game. He later on studied Machine Learning with a Masters and a Ph.D. degree in Paris, France.

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

Moustapha Cisse, Senegalese AI champion to lead Google’s AI Lab in Accra, Ghana (Image source: Moustapha Cisse)

After working at Facebook AI Research, he has now moved to lead Google’s AI expansion strategy in Africa. Moustapha is an AI technical researcher, hands-on expert and proactive knowledge champion with an inspiring vision for AI in Africa.

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit from AI and automation. Though the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of the world, it must, however, act fast to avoid lagging behind. Google’s recent announcement that Africa is getting an AI Lab, signals the search giant’s commitment to put Africa on the world’s technology map, starting with Ghana.

Of all African countries, why Ghana?

That’s the question many African tech watchers are asking. It’s true that Accra has a vibrant tech industry. But it’s equally true that its tech industry isn’t as vibrant as that in Nairobi or Lagos where Google has already announced plans to open its first Launchpad Space outside the US. Besides, Facebook also opened its first startup hub for Africa in Lagos just last month.

So, why Ghana?

But the answer has been clear for a long time; Ghana is the future of Africa.

When former US President Barack Obama, visited Ghana as the first African country during his reign, it was a sign that Ghana was aiming for the future.

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

U.S. President Obama walks with Malia, Michelle and Sasha following, during their visit to Cape Coast Castle, Ghana (Image source: kwabena.me)

It’s true that the country doesn’t have the hardcore market edge of countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. But, it is an excellent place to live and work.

Stability

Unlike other African countries, Ghana has relative stable electricity supply. It also has relative security and a decent Internet infrastructure, capable of accommodating an AI laboratory.

Google, however, might have slightly different reasons for picking Ghana. According to Jeff Dean, the Google AI and Google Brain lead, Google picked Ghana because of its robust network of academic institutions and its infrastructure. Over the years, Google has committed itself to strengthen those institutions and the infrastructure around them. This explains the decent Internet connectivity Ghana currently boasts of.

To say the least, Ghana’s Internet speeds are currently comparable with those in the US. Besides, in 2015, Google quietly started laying an extensive fiber-optic backbone in Accra, then Kampala, to improve Internet speeds.

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

Google’s Project Link coverage in Accra (Google)

 

Education

In recent years, Ghana has also become a sweet spot for education on the continent. And the reason is clear; the country has been relatively stable. Plus, its educational system is second to none in Africa. It’s the reason people from non-English speaking regions increasingly travel to Ghana to learn English and study. Currently, the foundations of its educational system are the strongest in the sub-region.

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

Image source: Graphic Online

Building African talent has, over the years, grown to become one of Ghana’s strongest points. Besides, its central location on the continent also makes it an excellent business hub for businesses that want to expand into Africa’s largest market – Nigeria and Francophone Africa.

Is Africa ready for Artificial Intelligence?

For decades, Africa’s reputation has suffered, mostly owing to horrifying stories of poverty, hunger, disease, conflict, lousy leadership, among others. Despite these awful images of Africa, some of the best AI talent in the world is, however, of African origin. Some of this talent either work on applied AI projects from within Africa or in developed markets.

Why Africa Must Prepare for an Artificial Intelligence Future

Sophia, the robot whose artificial intelligence was partly developed in Ethiopia (Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar)

Many world economies are entering a period where AI can overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of growth.

To avoid missing out, Africa’s policymakers and business leaders must prepare for, and work towards a future with AI.

AI is already invading major areas across Africa. In Nigeria, doctors are using machine learning for the early detection of birth asphyxia in newborn babies.

In Ethiopia, where Sophia the robot was partly developed, futurists believe AI has the potential to drive massive development. And the country already has its own AI lab, iCog run by Getnet Assefa. To become an AI leader,  China is using Zimbabwe as the testing ground to help its facial recognition systems identify faces with dark skin.

The AI paradox

But governments across Africa worry that developments in artificial intelligence will impact existing jobs and take away others even before they can go round. This is especially true as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply. AI will no doubt, improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions of more new positions. But it could, however, impact many others.

When automated teller machines (ATMs) arrived in the 1960s, they saved customers from relying on humans to conduct simple transactions.

But ATMs didn’t replace bank teller jobs. Instead, the number of fully-employed bank tellers grew by 2% after ATMs were widely deployed in the early 2000s. Economist, James Bessen, dubs this, “The Automation Paradox: When computers start doing the work of people, the need for people often increases.”

Far from fearing that AI will replace human jobs, Africa should explore and invest in technology that can help humans become more creative and work side by side AI. It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand human knowledge and skills. But Africa must also learn how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

While AI could be yet, another productivity enhancer, African leaders must see AI as a tool that will transform the continent’s knowledge about how growth is created.

For Africa, AI has the potential to bring up new solutions for Africa’s problems. It also has the potential to create new markets for the continent, and Google is committed to helping Africa get there.

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