The Essence of Artificial Intelligence in Africa

AI is neither good nor evil. It’s a tool. It’s a technology for us to use. ~Oren Etzioni

But what kind of tool is AI? Well, that’s not a question with a single answer since there is no officially agreed definition. Even AI researchers have no exact definition of AI. The field is rather being constantly redefined when some topics are classified as non-AI, and new topics emerge.

The definition I present to you is based on the properties which characterize AI¹:

Autonomy — The ability to perform tasks in complex environments without constant guidance by a user.

Adaptivity — The ability to improve performance by learning from experience.

In other words, a system that can function without constantly being monitored, and gets better as it does more…..sounds oddly similar to a child, doesn’t it?

Imagine a time when we aren’t limited to repetitive menial tasks in our day to day life, this is a time where we can choose to be as creative as we want, a time where we are more empathetic, in other words, a time when we are more human. These are some of the grand promises we are sold about AI potential, this means that there is a potential dark side to it, but what tool doesn’t have a dark side?

Let’s look at where Artificial Intelligence is being used in the here and now:

  1. Recommendations in platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Auto-predict:
  • What should we show the human next?
  • What does the human want to say next?

2. Image & Video Processing:

  • Who/what is in that photo?
  • Let’s turn the human into an abstract painting

There is no doubt that the application of Artificial Intelligence is having a significant impact on the lives of every person, whether they know it or not. The question shouldn’t be “Should we adopt AI” anymoreit needs to be “How should we adopt and apply AI”.

Dr. Elsa², an AI-powered health assistant for healthcare providers, is looking to solve the problem of a physician to patient ratio.

Agrobot, a platform to help farmers get proper information and advice regarding fertilizers, tools, medicine, and diseases through a chatbot or a normal SMS message.

E-Shangazi, a platform that educates, informs and advises youths on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHr).

These are African projects focusing on how to apply Artificial Intelligence for the greater good of the African community.

Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.

~ Stephen Hawking

As Africans we are in a very strategic position where we can use the AI systems and frameworks developed in higher-income countries, build on it according to our specific requirements and test it directly where the needs exist. We, therefore, have a variety of opportunities to solve our challenges uniquely. With this thought, Sahara Sparks hosted a panel discussion titled “Accelerating Growth of Africa AI ecosystem” featuring:

Starting from the right:

Deogratias highlighted the importance of ethics as the center of the growth of AI in Africa. We must make sure that as the use of AI grows in Africa it remains for the good of the people.

Artificial Intelligence is having a significant impact on the improvement of many sectors in Africa, but we must realize that we will be handling personal and sensitive data, the utilization of which can make or break the confidence of the people. Here lies a major question, how do we encourage the growth of Artificial Intelligence skills in Africa ethically?

According to our panelists, it is through ensuring that all the stakeholders should be engaged and involved with the technology concerning what they provide to it. The Stakeholders³ include:

  1. Policy Makers — 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.
  2. Industry — creates innovative products; provides invaluable knowledge, insight, and expertise to the government for effective policymaking; and contributes to the development of local talent and skills for Africa’s growing youthful population.
  3. Academia — Offer fertile ground where leading scientists and engineers can experiment and try out their new ideas.
  4. Civil Society — Calling attention to the ethical and social implications that must be addressed in the development of AI, ensuring that it is human-centered and capable of delivering tangible benefits for the African population.
  5. International Community- Source of best practices and platforms for discussions at all levels from individuals to policymakers.

The best way to get them all involved is by creating interest and passion at individual levels, allowing the people to learn and apply. Through this, the stakeholders will see the direct impact of Artificial Intelligence in the African story.

However, the process of learning and creating can seem tiring — think of staring at a black screen for hours typing away.

What is needed to grow the individual AI interest in Africa, is to learn AI by solving a challenge, a challenge that we face in our society. There exist a myriad of courses that are more personalized by focusing on the African context, using our data and our skills.

It is by tapping into this mindset of solving problems, will we then begin to see the natural and rapid growth of the African AI ecosystem.

“Our intelligence is what makes us human, and AI is an extension of that quality.” ~ Yann LeCun

[1] Elements of AI:

[2] Artificial Intelligence In Tanzania, What’s Happening:

[3]Artificial Intelligence for Africa: An Opportunity for Growth, Development, and Democratisation.

About the Author

Essa Mohamedali is the Community Manager of Tanzania’s AI Lab. As an undergraduate in Computer Science at UDSM with a strong affinity for ethically centred AI, his personal vision is to create a global impact among youth through economic empowerment.

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