EXCLUSIVE: African Tech Voices: Africa must discover its AI identity to accelerate tech modernisation
ITWeb Africa is pleased to introduce the African Tech Voices series, a regular feature that provides a platform for top-level industry insiders to provide industry, tech, business, innovation and trending topics opinion and insights from across Africa. We are proud to introduce the first piece – an exclusive from Dr Mark Nasila, Chief Analytics Officer - FNB Chief Risk Officer, who speaks about the impact of AI on the market.
Emerging technologies are changing how we live, work, and interact with one another. But they’re also changing what customers expect of private and public institutions. These technologies — which include artificial intelligence (AI), augmented, virtual, and mixed reality, blockchain, 3D printing, and nanotechnology— are also becoming more difficult to separate as they increasingly overlap.
At the core of this connectivity and data-creation revolution is AI. From the smart assistants on our smartphones and in our smart home products to chatbots and risk decisioning software, AI is rapidly improving and expanding what it’s capable of, which is why it’s showing up in ever more products and services.
As generic, off-the-shelf AI solutions become more powerful and affordable, they also promise to confine some varieties of manual labour to the history books, freeing people up to work on the tasks they’re better suited to than AI systems are.
However, turning more capable AI into a problem-solving tool for the African continent will require African businesses and governments to assert their own, unique identities and bend AI to match. Merely mimicking what is being done with AI elsewhere in the world won’t be enough, because in addition to facing unique challenges, solving them means understanding and adapting to the unique ethical challenges and considerations that come into play.
African nations and businesses cannot simply be consumers of imported AI products and services — they need to rework, remix, and refine them so they’re fit for purpose, or create them from scratch in some cases.
How AI will change the future
Of the top 100 companies by market capitalisation, technology businesses account for 20% — which is a larger share than any other sector. But technology also enables and influences most other sectors, like financial services, healthcare, energy, telecommunications, and utilities. Of the top 10 most valuable companies by market cap, half are technology companies: Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, and Tencent. Others, like Amazon, Tesla, and Alibaba may not be pure technology companies, but they’re heavily reliant on (and sources of) technological innovation nevertheless.
According to the AI expert and venture capitalist Dr Kai-Fu Lee, “[AI] is going to change the world more than anything in the history of mankind. More than electricity.” That may seem like a bold claim at first glance, but AI is affecting almost every industry and business. It’s the primary driver behind innovations like robotics, the internet of things, and big data. In many ways, AI is the mother of other emerging technologies and will continue to be.
McKinsey expects the total annual value of AI and analytics across industries will soon be worth between $9.5 trillion and $15.4 trillion. When you consider how many of these affect Africa — like banking, healthcare, the public and social sectors, telecoms, and utilities — that’s not only a huge opportunity for job creation and revenue generation but a chance to solve the challenges unique to the continent (or which manifest in unique ways).
Countries leading in AI adoption have already seen impressive growth in labor productivity as a result. Leading beneficiaries include Sweden, Finland, the United States, Japan, and Austria, each of which has seen a 30% increase or more in labour productivity with AI when compared to expected baseline productivity levels, according to Accenture.
Because investment in AI is expected to result in significant upside, many nations are spending lavishly on it. China has long harboured ambitions of being the world’s AI superpower. To this end, it’s said it will become a $150 billion AI global leader by 2030.
Why must Africa spearhead its AI strategy through its identity?
Africa’s opportunities, like its challenges, are unique. These include food security, utility reliability, unemployment and education woes, healthcare challenges, and more. But each obstacle also represents an opportunity for AI-based solutions to be developed and, potentially, eventually be exported.
A recent report from Google and the International Finance Corporation estimates Africa’s digital economy could contribute as much as US$180-billion to the broader economy by 2025. Google has already opened an AI research centre in Ghana (the continent’s first), and IBM and Microsoft have both made moves to develop African talent in the AI arena.
Sectors like healthcare can benefit from AI by empowering medical professionals and facilities to achieve more with fewer resources, from triage and diagnosis to post-care, while also improving access and affordability. AI can also help improve education, it can drive financial inclusion and economic participation, and it can bolster food production by aiding the agricultural sector to optimise crop yields.
Like improved food production, financial inclusion is also key to reducing poverty. And using AI to streamline public services can contribute directly to productivity and GDP by reducing backlogs, improving service quality and response times, ensuring efficient use of resources. AI can also help combat corruption and maintain transparency. Smart city services can even reduce how long African commuters spend in traffic — another immediate way to boost GDP and improve the quality of life of citizens.
But the success of AI-powered solutions depends on execution. Success means ensuring the right strategy is adopted, the correct use cases are identified, the foundational datasets are sufficient, and a strong culture of experimentation is encouraged and cultivated.
Countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa — which have been applying AI to address their specific needs in health, agriculture, fintech, public transportation, and language translation — have the potential to become leading centres of innovative AI use, research, and development. Eventually, they could even export newly developed AI products and services to other markets, not only in Africa, but beyond it.
If Africa ignores AI, it risks missing out on one of the greatest opportunities of the coming decades. But it also risks missing out on a chance to not only catch up with more developed markets when it comes to this powerful emerging technology but potentially to solve problems that might not otherwise be solved because more developed markets don’t face them, and thus are disincentivised to create solutions for them.
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