Delegates and exhibitors network and visit stands at the AI Expo Africa in September at the Century City Conference Centre, in Cape Town, South Africa. RODGER BOSCH/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


Recent report indicates the continent could benefit but tech progress uneven

Artificial Intelligence is experiencing uneven development in Africa, but according to a recent report the technology is poised to generate promising opportunities for businesses, governments and consumers on the continent.

AI is a constellation of technologies that enable machines to act with higher levels of intelligence and emulate human capabilities to sense and comprehend, according to the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

So far AI has been used to develop and advance numerous fields and industries, including finance, healthcare, education, and transportation, among others.

According to the International Data Corporation, spending on cognitive and AI systems in the Middle East and Africa region will reach $114.2 million by 2021, with the market expected to represent a compound annual growth rate of 32 percent.

In Africa, AI is potentially helpful in addressing challenges like poverty reduction, improving education, delivering healthcare, and eradicating diseases, according to the report titled: “AI for Africa: An Opportunity for Growth, Development, and Democratization”.

The authors point out that the technology can also help in addressing sustainability challenges and meeting the growing demand for food. Through AI implementation in Africa, agriculture can be handled more efficiently and effectively, thereby raising yields. Healthcare, on the other hand can be improved and more accessible. Public services can be more efficient and more responsive to citizens, while financial services can be more secure and reach more citizens, according to the report.

Sikhumbuzo Zondi, a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue, which is associated with the University, said that while there are signs that AI has a bright future in Africa, most countries on the continent are still battling with things like electricity, mechanized production and automation.

Other challenges include lack of quality education, especially universally accessible education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, lack of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment and insufficient public policies that promote research, entrepreneurship and open data in a regulated environment.

However, Zondi said African governments could advance AI technology through national education systems, research institutes and skill programs.

“African countries should adequately invest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as these holds value in the labor market and prepare citizens for the future,” Zondi said.

Additionally, African governments, business leaders, investors, and workers must equip themselves to proactively govern the transitional period.

“The transition involves transformation of the current workplace by training workers for complex tasks and responsibilities and reforming laws guiding worker competitiveness and global business practices,” Zondi said.

Thomas Meyer, a professor in computer science at the University of Cape Town, said Africa has many opportunities for AI development, especially in the health sector, food security and innovative financial applications.

“In some cases, it’s a matter of employing AI solutions to problems that have been developed in other parts of the world. In other cases, it’s a matter of employing AI solutions to problems that, if not unique to Africa, are perhaps more prevalent on the continent than elsewhere,” he said.

He said ensuring that Africa does not become just an AI consumer but also an AI solutions developer is the biggest challenge.

On whether the continent could be left behind in the global AI trend because of infrastructure, technology and human resource challenges, Meyer said there is a real danger of that happening, but it’s still avoidable.

For Africa to catch up with the global trend, he said the starting point is ensuring proper African representation on global bodies where AI is currently being debated and discussed.

Deshen Moodley, an associate professor in the department of computer science at the University of Cape Town, said there are many opportunities for using and implementing AI in Africa.


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