Tech giants, data scientists and entrepreneurs are exploring the potential that artificial intelligence can have in critical sectors like agriculture, health and education.
In September, the Dakar Institute of Technology (DIT) opened its doors, offering artificial intelligence programming courses. Its mission is to train local people in using data to solve pressing issues like the impact of climate change on crops.
In Cameroon, a new mobile phone app called Agrix Tech allows farmers to photograph a leaf affected by blight and then, using AI, diagnoses the problem and recommends treatment.
A project launched in Kenya this year also uses AI to crunch big data and give smallholder farmers recommendations such as when to plant, in a bid to avert food shortages, according to French technology firm Capgemini.
The Global Information Society Watch (GISW) last week published a report highlight the potential and actual impact of artificial intelligence on human rights, social justice and development in different countries in the Global South.
We talked to Daniel Mwesigwa, a technology analyst who wrote the GISW report for Uganda.
What are some of the AI projects highlighted in different African countries?
The Huawei Smart Cities program is basically a project that helps governments to monitor cities, that is through installation of CCTV cameras that are equipped with facial recognition which is also part of AI, that can read people’s faces and know who they are, that can read number plates, and also can read how people walk, so even if you cover your face. So the smart city project in 12 African countries including Uganda, Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and a couple of others.
What some of the sectors where AI can do the most good in Africa?
A very crude way of defining artificial intelligence is pattern recognition, so because computers and machines have become incredibly good at this stuff, it means that there is a very big opportunity in gaining efficiency, especially in sectors where Africa is lagging. In Agriculture for example, which is the biggest employer in very many informal economies, efficiency can be gained through use of collecting data. You can use drones equipped with cameras to surveil large fields and predict possible yields.
Why do you caution Africans and their governments to keep their guard up as they embrace AI?
I think its very important because if we do not heed to the advice of thinking cautiously about AI and its deployment, we are going to have catastrophic outcomes. Because most of the AI is being developed externally, we are getting technologies from China, telecommunications companies are getting AI tech from IBM. So most of this stuff is coming from outside and Africa is a test ground of sorts. And we are just taking this tech without thinking of its impact on livelihoods, security and the economy.
What do you recommend should be done to lead this cautious approach to AI?
I think its important that we have this conversation informally in the media or through townhall meetings, where people can know that they are being watched beyond the deployment of CCTV cameras. So we know that the government actually has a database where they are reconciling your face from the street to the national Id, and from the national id to your biometric and in turn this data is being fed to a telecommunication network to determine whether one should get a loan or not.