We have witnessed AI's rise in public services and industries in recent years. The revolution is expected to contribute about 15.7 $ Trillion to the global economy by 2030. Still, its distribution in the different regions of the world remains unequal. Today, even though AI knowledge and skills are democratized through various mediums such as online course platforms, one can still see a big gap between the global north and south in how it is spread, utilized, and capitalized. Where does Africa stand in the AI revolution?
The world's biggest AI hubs are in California's Silicon Valley and China's Zhongguancun in Beijing. Innovation is being made in those places using cutting-edge technology and methodologies. However, they are mainly developed for commercial purposes. In Africa, AI could have a chance to fulfill its initial promise: "Make the world a better place to live" by tackling some of the planet's most pressing issues. Earlier this year, The MIT Technology Review published an article titled "The Future of AI is in Africa." Indeed at a continental level, conferences are being set to gather practitioners, researchers, students, and investors to share their vision and best practices.
In 2019, Oxford Insights released its annual report on AI governments' readiness. The AI index is derived from four clusters: Governance, Infrastructure and Data, Skills and Education, and Government and Public policies, and ranges between 0 and 10 for a list of 194 countries worldwide. Each of them is evaluated on every cluster using data from different sources. However, notwithstanding all the efforts and dynamism in the African AI ecosystem, no African country is ranked in the top 50. The top African country based on the index is Kenya, with a score of 5.672 at position 52. It is worth noticing that Kenya has the fastest Internet connexion after Madagascar (page 41), and it is a real asset in fostering digitalization in societies. The African country with the lowest AI readiness index is Somalia.
Most African countries have an informal economy, meaning billions of transactions are made in markets without digital records. This is an example of what we could call "data waste" Africa has faced for decades in many fields. However, banking and telecommunications companies have been gathering data for a long time for business purposes such as advertisements, consumer habits, or services. For example, telecommunications companies have proposed mobile wallets for the public to make financial transactions and pay bills. The amount of data generated by such tools is significant. However, the data is still not public.
Many start-ups have understood the power of being data-driven. They have been creating data pipelines to develop products or propose services. Such bottom-up (from start-ups to policymakers) approaches can radically and profoundly transform the entire ecosystem. Due to increasing demand from the job market in the academic world, universities are starting to offer training in data-related sciences. For example, The University of Lagos launched Nigeria's First AI hub. AIMS (The African Institute of Mathematics and Sciences) launched in September 2018 The African Master in Machine Intelligence, which aims to produce African Machine Learning experts.
Harnessing AI is not only about having a critical mass of Machine Learning engineers, data scientists, and mathematicians; it's also about creating an AI-driven ecosystem to foster innovation and entrepreneurship with all the infrastructure needed. We're facing many challenges in Africa: climate change, food security, and public health, among others. AI has a huge potential to address those issues more effectively with the power of data and predictive modeling. However, it will depend on governments' political willingness and vision to position Africa at the heart of the 4th Industrial revolution and harness its power for social impact.
Opinions are my own.