We must not wait, the future is now

Alex Tsado's Keynote at the ITU's AI for good summit

The year is 2018 and Nick Litombe, Nomso Kana and I sitting round a table, basking in our success.

Nick from Cameroon was an applied Physics PhD and data scientist, crafting energy and innovation policy for the US government, Nomso from South Africa was a nuclear physicist turned Fiber optics entrepreneur, deploying infrastructure to reduce internet costs in her country. I was guiding top 5 largest companies in the world to deploy AI solutions that billions would use, the future looked exciting for humanity until we had this chilling realization that there was an insurmountable gap growing in the quality of life humans live, because of the way people were applying the technologies we were building. And that in the near future, being wealthy won’t be enough for you to escape this gap. The only way, was to increase the representation of people who look like you at the table where AI is built.

You probably now see a version of this, with COVID-19, it has come to expose this gap to more people

  • as a rich person in Nigeria, you can’t simply send your kids to America for school when there are terrible schools at home,
  • as a rich person you can’t escape the poor health systems in your country and fly to London when you are sick,
  • as a rich person the security systems will still spot you as Black and most likely a criminal

Many of you wish for Covid-19 to end so these all go away, but I say to you that if the current application of AI continues because you don’t do something about it, this problem will last more than 3 decades until we are at the mercy of White and Chinese male engineers.

We could not wait that day in 2017, we had to act fast, you cannot wait today, you have to act now.

I’ll paraphrase Nelson Mandela, he said

       “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. Make sure to pause and enjoy the view, then march on because with freedom comes great responsibility.”

To that I share that last year at this powerful global summit there were two men representing Africa, handing out pamphlets. They are Nick Bradshaw and John Kamara both here on this call. So myself, Nick, Celina and Dr. Ama Wray in America set on a journey to convince the ITU that it was crucial for African innovators to be at this table, so the world has an opportunity to benefit from their groundbreaking work. Today, the ITU has 3 sessions, with up to 15 speakers of African descent, 60% of this one we organized are women.

It’s been 500 years, but our voice edges ever closer, returning to the global innovation table, and we will use it to speak not just for Black people or women, but for Latin Americans, Asians, Europeans and people in the forgotten American states.

We must stop our cycle of waiting for the world to change.

  • We must stop waiting, for our governments to magically do something on their own without our support.
  • We must stop waiting, for large global companies to increase representation in their staff because evidence shows that they don’t have the motivation
  • We must stop waiting because for once, the same technology that threatens our relevance also provides us an opening to demonstrate a new path for its progression.

AI for basic human needs.

Onyeka Akumah did not wait when he went from discussing with my organization 3 years ago about finding mentors for his Farmcrowdy startup in Nigeria to now multiplying the yields of over 25k farmers over there, earning him no 24 of the top Africa disrupters list.

Eric Kirima did not wait when he set up Tambua health in Kenya to damn the atrocious costs of MRI machines, by designing an AI tool on phone, such that you place that phone on a patients back, it collects sound waves from their lungs, uses those waves to create images that medical practitioners can use to diagnose disease, you can imagine how much cheaper this is than buying a MRI that costs the same as building 4 hospitals in Kenya.

We must not wait.

Us, underrepresented people, we ask to return to the table of innovation not just because we want to save our lives, but because the solutions we build are built with affordability and accessibility at the core, applicable to users all around the world and potentially saving the life of the planet. Meeting the UNDGs before 2030.

In parts like Africa, we have a small % with access and ability to pay comfortably, and our challenge is to beat this divide down over time. My fellow panelists are distributed on the chart. I look forward to their comments as we discuss

I spoke about this at a pan-African conference in Egypt last December and was told that Africa was too behind to talk about AI. My response was that if you look at Africa in short periods you will find problems. But if you look at it decade to decade, you will find commendable growth, growth that we can build on now to design the future of our economies.

You’ll agree, there are Africans working at key positions for key organizations around the world. Our organization, Alliance for Africa’s intelligence is laser focused on the future of our lives. Our approach is to tap into Africa’s smartest minds across the world to get people acting on crucial matters that can’t wait, experimenting and piloting programs until for-profit bodies, governments or large foundations pick them up to scale. The government side-kick. Our key principles are #onebrain #love and #eachoneteachtwo.

The old plan was that leaders today have a focus on consumers – how do we find $100b to borrow so we provide electricity and internet so people can consume. But this is solving the equation backwards, hence it has failed for 20Y. It doesn’t start with small steps that cascade into a domino effect. The AI revolution is not about consumers, it’s about builders. AI is today. We must shift the tide from being consumers and seekers of aid towards being builders of solutions

The 3 key steps to enabling your fourth industrial revolution domino effect are as follows

  1. Activate your builders
  2. Meet your learners where they are
  3. Be the market

We must select those in our nation to activate as builders, even if it’s just 5 companies, China started with Alibaba and Baidu. Your builders need supercomputers and enabling policies

There is already progress as African innovators raised over a billion dollars last year, connectivity cost is going down, mobile penetration is going up. But we are ready for the next wave, I hope Strive Mayisiwa is listening, he initiated the last wave that has created millions of jobs. The next wave is supercomputers.

These range from very powerful laptops to rooms filled with powerful machines. The world didn’t have modern AI until 2012 when GPU supercomputers started getting used for AI. So how can African innovators build competitive AI without much easier access to supercomputers?

It’d take African innovators 2 months to train complex but important AI models that will take their counterparts a few hours in San Francisco with a small supercomputer, not even a big one. There is one supercomputer in Africa today, built and managed by my good friend Happy Sithole in South Africa. I was involved in the deployment of every NVIDIA gpu supercomputer on the cloud today, so my evolving perspective is, when you are deploying your product and people are paying for it, do that on the cloud; when you are learning and experimenting to build, it’s crazy to use cloud that you are paying for, your competition in America have hundreds of thousands of free cloud credits, or work with their governments to build supercomputers at. We need to solve that for our builders in Africa.

You can start this out with a pilot, either less than $100k for one startup hub with 5 key companies, or $500k for a city or go $10m to pilot across the 4 corners of the continent. We already have a group of Africans deploying these machines for other continents, they are happy to lend their services to their continent, and this can unlock new industries and jobs.

The policy piece I won’t dive into it much. I however invite you to see Tunisia startup act.

I’ll instead talk about a case study – Karim Beguir of InstaDeep Tunisia. I I’ve worked them for 3 years now and they have a supercomputer and enjoy the policies there, today they are one of the top 100 AI companies in the world, and 6 days ago kicked a continental research challenge to find the cure for Leishmaniasis, a disease of the poor, neglected even though it infects 2 million worldwide every year.

If we don’t do this step, large percentage of our people will not be ready to work in the future that is already here

For the others below the digital divide curve we must meet where they are, prepare them to join the builders above. You don’t have to post all learning content on the internet, some of it can go on radio, Television or whatsapp – don’t deliver solutions like you are in San Francisco, deliver solutions that meet your people where they are. I can’t wait for Toyosi to speak about the thousands she has empowered. The most important skills in the future are to spot trends early and adapt quickly, so you keep up with the rapid changes. Traditional education systems are not designed to change quickly, so they need support. Ideologies from Dr Marope who will speak next and my mentor Andrea Kates in SF greatly inform my views of capabilities necessary to thrive in the future. I use these to advise our learning program manager at Alliance4ai Rose Gesicho so she can build systems robust for the future. Rose who lives in Kenya is not much older than 20 but she’s refused to wait, and is already involved in training 2000 women to learn AI. If you like democracy you will like this. She’s building a distributed crowd-healing FOW learning plan that guides users on capabilities critical in tomorrow’s world, along with resources they can use to learn. Overtime these learners have the opportunity to suggest more capabilities and resources as the world continues to change. crowd-healing FOW learning plan . This is the program that is piloted in Africa science academy in Ghana, ALU Rwanda and Supcom Tunisia.

 If you’re listening to this talk, and this is interesting to you, talk to us and let’s see how we can scale this together to not just schools, churches, mosques across Africa, but the rest of The world that’s facing the digital divide today. Now, sitting here today right now we have the x factor. Right here right now on this virtual conference we collectively have the x factor, and it is you. You need to be the market.

The African markets are not going to grow if you are not buying from them. There is a global bias where Africans have been painted as seekers of aid, not builders of solutions, so majority overlook Africa’s innovative core. Case in point with COVID-19 right now everyone knows that tests are crucial for us to restart global economies. These tests cost over $500 in America, but researchers in Senegal developed a $1 test 3 months ago, I haven’t heard of the world, not even enough Africans, putting it to trials.

We have to do away with that outdated narrative still propelled by major news outlets.  

Be the market.

So my dominoes –

Create thriving environments for the sharpest innovators, run campaigns that encourage local and international purchase of their offerings, completely new industries get enabled, these transform the economics of your societies to the point where you have enough well-fed free thinking human beings who will make up a majority in your government, a responsible government to lead you to your future.

And returning to Alliance4ai, we will continue to be one of the sidekicks to government, ensuring we the grassroot people, are making progress, in Africa, in America, in Brazil, all forgotten minorities across the world. We cannot fail, we will only succeed faster, if you join the movement support.

We have opportunities for volunteers including musicians and sports players to join us, please do, and for donors to fund our blueprint and scale these programs, do reach out. Status quo is not an option, we either thrive, or perish.

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr said “it is only when it is dark enough that you will see the stars” It’s dark right now with covid-19 lockdowns, if you are star, I implore you to step out and be a star the world will never forget.

Thank you.

Full recording

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