AI Solutions Made in Africa Work Towards the SDGs

Africa is the youngest continent in the world, a true hub of digital innovation and creation. But when it comes to one of the biggest trends shaping our lives right now, AI, there's little information available about the situation in the region. We talked to Kate Saslow from Stiftung Neue Verantwortung to find out why.

Author Sarah-Indra Jungblut, 12.30.20

Africa is the youngest continent in the world, a true hub of digital innovation and creation. But when it comes to one of the biggest trends shaping our lives right now, AI, there’s little information available about the situation in the region. We talked to Kate Saslow from Stiftung Neue Verantwortung to find out why.

Artificial intelligence is one of the most fascinating and fast-developing technologies of our era. Thanks to its ability to process and analyse huge amounts of data, AI can be used to solve many complex challenges, helping process data, track changes over time and make findings in areas where our human analysis would not be enough. When applied carefully and responsibly, it can also have huge positive impact on the future of our planet and society, as we explored in a recent RESET special feature series.

While AI can be used to solve challenges in all parts of the world, the majority of the AI industry is currently still based in North America, Europe and Asia, with Africa, unfortunately, still underrepresented. Not only will this lack of regional diversity likely result in unintended algorithmic biases and discrimination being built into AI products – but fewer African AI researchers, engineers and developers also means fewer chances for AI to be used to improve the lives of Africans. A lack of information about the African AI landscape within the European community also means that there are currently still limited opportunities for collaboration.

To find out more we talked to Kate Saslow, project manager for the topic “Artificial Intelligence and Foreign Policy” at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung and author of the memo Foreign Policy Engagement with African Artificial Intelligence. We asked her why the situation is like it is, about how AI can be used to help achieve the SDGs and what Europe can learn from African countries when it comes to applying AI for sustainable development.

Why is it so hard to find information about the AI landscape in African countries?

While in Europe, many countries have a national AI strategy, many local tech companies or organisations are featured in local papers, and other news sources pick up these features, this didn’t seem to be the case for Africa. When I was in the early stages of my research, I learned that throughout the entire continent, only Kenya has an official national strategy that talked about aspirations for AI. What is more, when I tried to find exposés on AI technologies in Africa, I struggled to find anything coming from local sources. Interviews with African experts often directed me to the same Tech Review or BBC articles, or other international sources in general.

In your memo, I read that AI use cases from Africa are mainly found in the field of sustainable development. Why is this the case? Do you think that AI could maybe even be a game changer when it comes to achieving the SDGs?

I think AI certainly can when it comes to reaching some of the SDGs. In my memo I point to some of the obvious SDGs where AI can play a role. But here I think it is also extremely important to note that just because I believe it can play a positive role, that doesn’t mean that it will. Unless there is a market incentive to continue to push for AI for good, or to use AI methods to drive clean energy and sustainability research for example, it’s also possible that AI technologies could have a negative impact on us reaching certain SDGs. At the current rate, innovation in AI has been rather energy inefficient and it requires a significant amount of resources. But, scarcity drives innovation, so hopefully AI research in sustainability, clean energy, equality, and health will be the next en vogue topics.

Why do you think that so many international organisations are getting involved in using AI technologies?

This is purely speculative, but I suspect that research organisations, who may have a less profit-based motivation, could be attracted by the wealth of data that could be available to them. Mobile apps and services generate immense amounts of data, and Africa is becoming more and more connected, which means that algorithms can learn on not only American or Chinese data, but also now on local data, in local languages, and be trained for local use cases.

The USA and China are also trying to enter the African AI market. As I understand it, US companies invest in AI Labs and similar things, while China mostly wants to sell its own technologies. How independent are these Labs in reality? And what’s the proplem with the Chinese strategy?

That is a great question and I think it is probably difficult to gauge how independent these labs can be. In both the American and the Chinese private-sector strategies highlighted in the memo, it is difficult to assess not only how much the companies stand to profit, but also how much the cities or regions stand to gain just from the presence of these companies. In general, I think that either approach is problematic if it doesn’t promote voices from the region and take local needs and know-how into account.

Do you think we can expect to see more guidelines and strategies on digitalisation, and AI in particular?

From what I found, Kenya was the only country who had an official government document that laid out goals and guidelines for AI and distributed ledger technologies. When I was conducting interviews as part of my research, I learned that the government of Tunisia had already created the taskforce to draft a national AI strategy, but as far as I am aware, this is still in the works. I found it surprising and noteworthy that although Africa has many cities that have significant tech ecosystems, these national governments had not yet created strategies. For example, Canada’s AI strategy may have followed Montreal and Toronto’s leads as prominent AI hubs. In Africa, however, you have Cape Town, Addis Ababa, Accra, Lagos, Kigali, and more; but South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, etc., did not have official government documents that set the tone or goals of AI development.

What can we learn from African countries when it comes to applying AI for sustainable development in European countries?

We should remember that technology is not neutral. AI is not neutral. Advances in AI are driven by researchers, engineers and developers. So if we, as a society, can hold these creators to higher standards, then we can push the frontier of AI advancement in the direction we want. We can explore different ways AI can be used for good, in order to empower marginalised communities, in order to help adapt agricultural practices to a changing climate, in order to advance research in clean and renewable energy, etc. AI is by no means a panacea. But I strongly believe that if held to a higher standard, it can be a source of good in the world. And pursuing the SDGs seems like a great place to start.

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