Home Cyberpsychology & Technology Challenges and Benefits Associated with Artificial Intelligence in Africa

Challenges and Benefits Associated with Artificial Intelligence in Africa

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In contemporary African settings, both the benefits and risks of artificial intelligence (AI) are readily apparent. A recent study shows examples of innovative AI use in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa to address needs in health, agriculture, fintech, public transportation, and language translation. In these same three countries, as well as Uganda and Ethiopia, there is beneficial AI use in point-of-care diagnostics, government service delivery, wildlife conservation, crop monitoring, water management, enterprise development, and financial services.

Further, IBM’s mobile open source, Hello Tractor platform is providing AI-based on-demand tractor access to Nigerian farmers. At the same time, AI’s challenges and risks in African contexts are also potentially of great magnitude. In the wake of Nigerian online marketplace Jumia’s public listing, during which most of its equity was transferred to foreign owners, there was a sentiment that such arrangements throttle Africa’s homegrown tech industries.

The Financial Times reported that a 2018 study of startups in East Africa found that 90% of funding had gone to the startups’ foreign founders. Foreign AI companies have been accused of using false African identities as marketing tools to raise capital and then eventually cashing out.

Understanding the complexities of AI adoption in African contexts

In the absence of significant AI R&D in Africa, the applications of AI deployed in Africa tend to originate from outside the continent and thus lack contextual relevance, particularly in respect of cultural and infrastructural factors. And AI capabilities are, in some cases, being used by African governments to control citizens – for example, in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Instances of foreign-controlled and/or foreign-designed AI tools in African settings are increasingly being seen in neo-colonial terms, that is, as elements of algorithmic colonisation, data colonialism, and digital colonialism.

No doubt, despite the innovative importance and growth of artificial intelligence technology, it has indeed been faced with some significant challenges, especially in developing nations like Africa. According to Reliefweb, Africa faces several challenges when implementing artificial intelligence (AI), including complex algorithms, cultural affiliation, religious bigotry, and a lack of investment, among others.

  • AI-human interface. The challenge here is the shortage of data science skills within humans to get maximum output from artificial intelligence. There is a clear shortage of advanced skills that will interface between Africans and AI technology.
  • Software malfunction. While no human technology is perfect, a software or hardware crash could be highly frustrating to researchers, especially in Africa, where storage and retrieval systems are “poor”. Hence, software tasks performed by humans can be difficult to trace. This kind of problem can be frustrating and discouraging.
  • Cultural and religious barriers. Cultural affiliation and religious bigotry seem to be the two most common barriers to “development in Africa”; hence, AI technology is not spared. Language might not be a challenge to artificial intelligence progress in Africa, but people of the same tribal affiliation are usually biassed towards working cooperatively with other tribes, especially in knowledge acquisition.
  • Decline in investment. Another observed challenge of artificial intelligence in Africa is that not all health facility owners or managers are willing to invest in it. The funds required to set up and implement AI are high, so not every business owner or organisation in Africa can invest in it.
  • Complex algorithm. Personally, the technical side of AI involves some huge data and complex algorithms; sometimes making users not grasp AI concepts. A lot of individuals in Africa are completely unaware of these algorithms and technology, hence finding it difficult to understand the functioning of AI technology.

What we should do to bridge the gap

The adoption of AI and related technologies in Africa has the potential to significantly impact the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By driving economic growth, improving access to quality education and healthcare, and promoting sustainable agriculture, AI can further play a crucial role in addressing some of the continent’s most pressing challenges. Many other ways can be found through policymaking, research, culturally sensitive models and women’s participation.

Innovative research and policy-making for AI in workplace management

There is a need to foster innovative research by establishing research institutions or centres focused on AI applications in workplace management. These institutions can collaborate with universities, industries, and government bodies to conduct research on the impact of AI on workforce dynamics, productivity, and skill development. Simultaneously, policymakers need to enact regulations and guidelines to ensure fair and ethical AI usage in workplaces. This could involve setting standards for AI-based hiring practices, monitoring systems, and ensuring transparency and accountability in AI deployment.

Development of standards for AI provenance and training data 

To address concerns about AI transparency and accountability, African scientists should work on developing standards and protocols for tracking the provenance of AI systems and their training datasets. This could involve creating databases or registries where developers are required to disclose information about the origin of their AI algorithms and the datasets used for training. Additionally, implementing mechanisms for ongoing monitoring and auditing of AI systems can help ensure that they remain fair and unbiased throughout their lifecycle.

AI mitigation and unbiased strategies 

Beyond purely technical solutions, there is a need to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to AI mitigation and unbiased strategies. This involves engaging experts from diverse fields such as ethics, social sciences, and law to assess the societal impact of AI technologies and develop comprehensive strategies for addressing biases and mitigating potential harms. Moreover, fostering collaboration between AI developers, policymakers, and civil society can facilitate the development of inclusive and ethical AI frameworks that prioritise fairness and transparency.

Promoting diversity and inclusion in AI development 

In promoting diversity and inclusion, AI technology companies in Africa should actively promote the participation of women and minority groups in AI research and development. This could be achieved through initiatives such as scholarships, mentorship programmes, and community outreach efforts aimed at encouraging underrepresented and less privileged groups to pursue careers in AI. Additionally, companies should prioritise diversity and inclusion in their hiring practices and create inclusive work environments where individuals from diverse backgrounds feel valued and empowered to contribute to AI innovation.

Hiring experts from diverse disciplines 

Recognising that AI development requires expertise beyond computer science and engineering, Africa should encourage AI companies to hire professionals from diverse disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. These experts can provide valuable insights into human behaviour, societal dynamics, and ethical considerations that are crucial for designing AI systems that are sensitive to the needs and values of diverse communities. Furthermore, ensuring that AI development teams are led by competent managers with a strong understanding of both the technical and ethical dimensions of AI can help ensure the responsible and effective deployment of AI technologies.

Takeaway

Despite the fact that there is a dearth of data on all aspects of AI in Africa, much of the available information is thus anecdotal. There is a need for African policy responses, at the national, regional, continental and international levels, aimed at ensuring that the continent’s innovators, enterprises, communities, governments, and other actors are able to reap AI’s benefits and mitigate its threats. Sound policy approaches will be needed to enable African nations to build ecosystems that are inclusive, socially beneficial, and adequately integrated with on-the-ground realities.




Onah Caleb is a research assistant at Benue State University (Nigeria). He runs the blog KaylebsThought.

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