Africa is already solving problems with artificial intelligence – but it needs to be careful
Terms like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and automation are dominating technology discussions around the world right now. The pros and cons of each divide experts across a wide range of industries. Some predict a digital utopia; others the end of humanity as we know it. While those of us with less extreme premonitions still need to devise a game plan on how to adopt these technologies and adapt to a world where machines do more.
For Africa, it can’t look overseas for a model to follow. This technology is new to everyone and the needs of African countries are unique – as are the potential opportunities. Luckily, Africa is innovative by nature and something it can rely on overseas partners for is investment.
While much of the technology comes from overseas, implementing it in the most effective way for African countries is vital. Replacing humans with machines, for example, won’t help the growing employment and population growth concerns.
African countries are already doing impressive things with AI, machine learning and automation. However, it’s important Africa stands on its own feet with technology and implements it according to its needs – not simply offer its land as a testing ground for the tech giants.
Technology in agriculture
Agriculture is the perfect industry for such tests. As the largest employer across Africa, countries need to maintain and expand their agriculture sectors in increasingly difficult circumstances. And this is where AI, machine learning and automation can really offer something.
It’s all about efficiency.
Since 2015, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) has been working with IBM and Wavetec on a platform that traces coffee at each stage of the supply chain. Primarily, the software helps coffee producers secure Fairtrade and organic certification more easily – speeding up the production and sales process.
In South Africa, Cape Town startup Aerobotics uses a combination of AI, satellites and drones to help farmers identify problem areas in their crops. The technology helps farmer spot issues early, preventing up to 20% of crop failures.
These technologies aren’t taking jobs away from people; they’re helping them work more effectively and building stronger businesses.
Technology in healthcare
Healthcare is another industry vital to Africa’s continued development and technology is already making a positive impact. Drones are being used in Rwanda to deliver medical aid to people in remote areas – including blood supplies in difficult-to-reach places.
While in Morocco, Cameroon and South Africa, an AI system called SOPHiA allows hospitals to analyse patient data, detect disease-causing mutations in their profiles and determine the most effective treatment.
Challenges ahead for Africa
As always, there are challenges ahead for Africa as technology plays a larger role in industries and employment is the most obvious concern. Manufacturing sectors will have a lot to gain from automating production but it could come at the expense of empowering a huge workforce – one that many experts say will be vital to sustainable development in Africa.
South Africa’s call centre boom could be living on borrowed time as AI-powered chatbots and similar platforms take care of customer needs. There could be similar problems in education, healthcare, agriculture and every other sector, too, if the technology is implemented with a short-term vision only.
The key for African countries is to use AI, machine learning and automation to help solve its existing problems. Not create new ones by taking shortcuts, chasing immediate profit failing to see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, when there’s big money involved in technology innovation, foresight often falls short.
Featured image: By Eduardofamendes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55882367