Artificial Intelligence: Africa’s Response To The Transformative Technology

The technological landscape in Africa is becoming very vibrant. It is almost safe to say that in a few years tech companies in Africa will be able to rub shoulders with their counterparts in Europe, America, and other places with a tighter technological ecosystem. 

There is an enormous amount of investments in tech every year, with each year greater than the previous. Investment in 2019 trumped that of 2018 by 74%. 

$195 million investment in 2017 shook the world, but that was only the beginning. In 2018, investments rose to $1.163 billion, with 78% going to  Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

By 2019, the tech industry was on a growth streak with $2.02 billion in funding. 

With huge amounts of funding pumped into the tech industry in Africa, it might just be what Africa needs to leap out of its current state. 

Asides billions in funding, the tech industry is witnessing a proliferation of tech start-ups with innovatively diverse frameworks that are rendering them indispensable to Africa and Africans. 

A 50% growth in tech hubs across the continent is deepening the innovation and startup culture in Africa, which, frankly, is what is needed to strengthen the continent’s financials and self-sustainability. 

The GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Program and Briter Bridges identified 618 active tech hubs in Africa in 2019. The growth has been exponential, in 2016 there were 314 and fast-forward to 2019, we had 618.

According to a Quartz Africa publication, tech hubs are organizations, ” with physical addresses that offer support and facilities for tech entrepreneurs. As such, it includes incubators, accelerators, university-based innovation hubs, maker spaces, technology parks, and co-working spaces in its categorization.”

The proliferation of these tech hubs is owed to the wide variety of challenges facing Africa. From medical and financial to educational points of view, these challenges can be tackled effectively with technology. 

While there are a lot of tech hubs creating innovations that could address various challenges in Africa, there are a couple of them making laudable innovations in Artificial Intelligence

So, what exactly is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

A simple contextual meaning is; machines being able to reason for themselves by learning from us. They are able to perform operations without human supervision. Leading AI textbooks define the field as the study of “intelligent agents”: any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals.

The programming of AI is based on three cognitive processes, which are: learning, reasoning, and self-correction. 

The learning process is synonymous with that of humans, only not as complex. As humans grow, we acquire information that informs our actions. We can discern right from wrong based on this information, we also learn how things are done from this information. 

This aspect of AI programming deals with the acquisition of data. The data acquired is turned into rules known as algorithms, these are like formulas or manuals for the device to solve specific problems. 

The reasoning process is simply deciding which algorithm is needed to solve a specific process. 

The self-correction aspect of AI programming is probably the most unique aspect of all. AI programming is designed to constantly update the algorithms to make sure they provide the most accurate solution to every task. This gives AI the ability to grow. 

How far has it come?  

The technology has evolved over the years. It has now become a word used casually, not just among the tech-savvy population. From going through heaps of medical data to accurately diagnose diseases to cars that drive themselves, AI is creating disruptive technological revolutions. 

To think that AI simply started out as a question by Alan Turning makes it all the more remarkable. Turning was responsible for decrypting the Nazi encryption machine called Enigma, the mathematician’s breakthrough assisted the allied forces to victory in WWII. In 1950 Turning’s question “can machines think?” Paved way for the idea of an intelligent machine to manifest.

Although Turning’s question has been answered in affirmative, answers are being provided beyond the question he asked.

Now, AI can translate languages in real-time, just like human beings. 

It can make your dinner reservations the same your secretary would (Google duplex)

It can also drive your car whilst you take a nap (Tesla autopilot ). 

The technology has obviously come very far, but the ultimate goal is still Artificial General Intelligence.

What is Artificial General Intelligence? (AGI), it means the ability of a single AI machine to do everything a human brain can do. This means a single AI should be able to translate, read, listen, drive, and communicate, all at once. 

Are Africans creating AI?

This rather interesting piece of technology is not lost on Africans. Tech giants such as Google are helping the continent harness the potentials of this technology. In April 2020, Google opened its first African AI research centre in Ghana. The centre will help research how AI can be used to improve health, agriculture, and education.

Furthermore, the continent is already sprouting companies that are using Artificial Intelligence to improve business, agriculture, and the likes. 

Some of the AI startups in Africa

Aerobotics

Founded in South Africa in 2014, Aerobatics, developed a technology that can visually assess and analyze human exploration activities on earth. Called the geospatial intelligence platform, it helps farmers detect pests and diseases in tree crops with the use of drones and satellite AI, and then interprets the information collected from the satellite and drones. The Artificial Intelligence algorithm can examine the image data and from it, provide information about the tree health, height, size, etc. 

Judy

Judy, is a Nigerian startup uses AI to bypass hours of legal research. Judy innovative technologies were founded in 2018. Since its launch, Judy’s search engine has made research easy for lawyers, with a comprehensive database of common law. 

In 2019, the startup raised $100,000 in funding. 

FinChatBot

The sound of chatting with a robot might seem weird but it’s no different from self-services or talking to smartphone assistants (Google Assistant, Siri, etc). 

South Africa’s FinChatBot actually develops chatbots that attend to customers, in place of actual people. The 4-year-old company particularly offers this service to financial service providers, to help acquire and retain customers. AI-powered conversations seem to be taking off. At the close of 2018, FinChatBot had raised $563 million in funding.

Touchbal Pictures

This Nigerian tech start-up was founded in 2017. It helps users identify objects in an image by just tapping on it. Similar to Google lens, Touchbal Pictures is tilted towards e-commerce for fashion and lifestyle. If a friend posts a picture with a wristwatch or shoes, the app scans the image revealing the brand, and where it can be bought online. 

Kudi.ai 

Launched in 2017, Kudi.ai developed a chat that helps users send money and make payments through messaging. According to Pelumi Abolarinwa, cofounder of the startup, “We developed it in-house, using a variety of machine learning techniques, ”. It studies user’s spending patterns, drives conversations, and prevents fraud. 

What does the future hold for AI in Africa

However, a lot of challenges still undermine the full utilization of AI. Though these startups could lay the foundation for further AI breakthroughs on the continent, the level of adoption will still be slowed by challenges peculiar to Africa. Primary infrastructure such as electricity and fast Internet, are still non-existent in some regions. 

A lot of Africans, particularly the young population, do not have access to technical skills that are needed to put them at the forefront of researching and building AI. Africa might lose out on fully harnessing this transformative technology.

Artificial Intelligence is truly a transformative technology, and could largely alter a considerable part of human nature. It could go beyond changing how we solve problems, to altering how we talk, work and communicate— the core of our social interactions. 

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