Embracing an AI-enabled future

No African country is among the top 10 expected to benefit most from artificial intelligence. But we have the potential to catch up

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By Antony Mutunga

When the World Wide Web went live in 1991, only a handful of people knew what it was. Fewer still cared for it. And then everything changed. As people realized the revolutionary nature of the Internet, many boarded that ship. For proper perspective, in 1981 there were only 213 computers logged on but three years later in 1985, there were 16 million people online. Today, there are billions.

This exponential expansion can be attributed to the emergence of support technologies such as email and web browsers, as well as the activities of companies like Amazon in 1998, and Google and Wikipedia in 2001. Today, the Internet affords users immense quantities of information that is accessible anywhere at any time, and has essentially changed the nature and course of human interactions. As technology evolves, so does the scope of the Internet.

Artificial intelligence (AI), both a result and enabler of the Internet, is among key drivers of this change in the coming five to ten years. AI – basically any intelligence demonstrated by a machine that leads it to an optimal or suboptimal solution to a given problem – continues to find application in many spheres of life every day. For example, it is integrated in the Google Maps application which uses an AI-enabled mapping to scan road information, and then uses algorithms to determine, say, the fastest route.

Artificial intelligence is expected in the coming years to dominate all aspects of human interactions, from driving to banking to working. Already, this technology is widely deployed in finance and security. Its recent growth in its role can be accredited to economic development opportunities it has presented.

According to a 2018 report by McKinsey Global Institute on the impact of AI on world economy, artificial intelligence has the potential to increase 16 percent – or around $13 trillion by 2030 to current global economic output – an annual average contribution to productivity growth of about 1.2 percent between 2018 and 2030. The technology is deemed so important that in 2016, several tech-related companies including Apple, Amazon, DeepMind, Google, IBM and Microsoft, created the ‘Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society’ to develop and share best practices as well as to advance public understanding.

In Africa, AI has been used in tutoring young students and in helping to deliver medical supplies to remotes areas; in Asia the technology has been used in mapping and analysing post-earthquake reconstruction needs as well as helping increase crop yields and boost profit.

But while technology has transformed the world, it has also deepened global inequality, as pre-existing gaps prior to the advent of technology continue to widen – h developed countries advance and adopt tech faster than developing ones. In other words, most developing countries are yet to full realise the true potential of the technology.

For instance, in Africa, despite the fact that AI has been integrated in some sectors, there is still little discussion on it and what benefits or risks accompany it. Here, more than there, AI has so much to offer but it hasn’t yet. Local entrepreneurs, for example, face major hurdles when it comes to deploying expertise in AI, including access to stable Internet connection, limited finance and insufficient infrastructure.

These challenges make the pursuit of artificial intelligence only accessible to those who are able to acquire the requisite resources. Additionally, many African governments are laid back when it comes to facilitating research on the applications of AI. For starters, there is a scarcity of policies that encourage the teaching, research and adoption of AI.

Applications

Brain drain – expertise lured abroad where they can thrive – is another challenge, as is restricted access to public data, which limits formulation of services and their attendant technology.

This lack of engagement in AI is causing the continent to miss out what is becoming an umpteenth wave of technological revolution. For example, if these governments integrated in the services they offer, instances of tax evasion, double taxation and missed revenue would decrease significantly. This is crucial in a continent where budget deficits are a constant feature, and where governments borrow heavily.

AI can also speed up the speed at which services are offered, thus reducing backlog in rendering and applications. AI can organise, calculate and audit faster than the average human can, which would reduce the amount of time and resources spent on applications.

In terms of security, AI can flag irregular financial transactions – common in money laundering and terrorism financing – which makes it an able tool in fighting corruption and terrorism.

In the extractives industry, AI includes robotics, where robots, instead of people, are used instead of humans to go into dangerous mines or plants to scout, operate drills and capture information. As a result of AI, a lot of human lives have been saved owing to reduced exposure to accidents; this too can benefit Africa.

Artificial intelligence also has the capacity to help the health sector in a continent where there aren’t enough doctors and hospitals to accommodate its growing population. The ratio of health workers to the population is lowest in Africa, and this gap keeps widening. AI can facilitate diagnosis, prescription and even delivery of medical supplies in far flung areas.

Nigerians developed an app that uses AI to offer fast and remote medical diagnoses. All one is required to do is key in the symptoms one has using a range of communication options to receive an instant diagnosis. If prescribed, information about where to purchase medication will also be offered. This has helped free up doctors and hospitals to deal with those who need in-person assistance, thus increasing healthcare efficiency.

Kenya’s M-Tiba app supports individuals to manage their healthcare expenses by enabling users to send, receive and save funds so that they may access patient care at reduced cost. Supporting individuals and families alike, it was developed by Safaricom, CarePay and PharmAccess Group. As of May 2017, it had partnered with more than 300 healthcare facilities and had more than a million subscribers.

Artificial intelligence also has vast application in the financial sector, where banks can make use of the enormous data they routinely collect from clients. As a result of the growing popularity of data monetization, banks can use the information to help reduce the risk of cash crunches, for instance through identifying or predicting when there is likely to be excessive and sudden large scale withdrawals.

Elsewhere, creditors can use technology to determine creditworthiness. AI can be used to measure behavioral traits, which can then be analysed to create a score. This is already evident in such countries like Kenya with fintech apps like Tala and Branch.

AI has the potential to create a proper social and economic revolution in Africa, but for this to happen, governments need to become more deliberate in how they craft policies, which must necessarily advance the development and use of artificial intelligence. (

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