The Glow And Gloom Of Artificial Intelligence In Africa

by Duke Magazine

Africa is currently experiencing a demographic boom that is largely young and urban. Unlike Germany with an a average age of 47.1, the United States at 38.1, or China at 37.7, the average age in Africa is 19.5. Also, this demographic of African youth is expected to double to 225 million by 2055. By 2100, Africa will be home to three of the largest cities in the world: Lagos, Nigeria is projected to be home to 88 million inhabitants, followed by Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, at 83 million and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at 73 million inhabitants.

Meeting the rising expectations of growth on the continent will require innovative approaches to address governance challenges faced by African countries. At the same time, the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance notes that although governance on the continent is improving, it is not in optimum with the expectations of the mainly young and urban population.

African states are therefore facing pressures to deliver services to rapidly growing metropolitan areas, while simultaneously improving performance on issues including abject poverty, continuous political instability, as well as numerous security threats. 

However, one tool that has been touted as a potential solution is artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning and associated computer-facilitated governance support has been described as the fourth industrial revolution. It could also be a useful tool for augmenting state capacity in weak and fragile state contexts. As with many disruptive technologies, however, AI can be used for positive or negative ends. Delivering the promise of positive AI will require good systems of governance.

Pros And Cons Of AI In Africa Setting 

So far, developments in AI have been predominately driven by private sector technology enthusiasts, but growing interest by African governments has seen the start of conversations around “AI Strategies” for growth and governance across the continent. AI is not typically applied to a defined problem in a neutral way. Navigating the complexities of AI application calls for a typology of positive AI and negative AI in the governance context. Positive AI is the use of such systems for broad social benefit. Conversely, negative AI is used for social division, suppression, or even violence.

The merit of AI applications in Africa have garnered most of the media coverage. Start-ups in Nigeria and Ghana are addressing doctor shortages and the lack of medical access for rural Africans. They have begun to use AI to empower doctors and leverage growing mobile phone ownership as a vehicle for collecting data, improving administrative efficiency, and to expand treatment coverage.

In both Kenya and Nigeria, AI focused start-ups have begun working on agricultural planning, reducing financial transaction costs, and improving public transportation access and efficiency. Education has also been a focus of start-ups like M-Shule and Tuteria, which provide accessible and extensive training and learning platforms to help teachers in the classroom. Governments in AI-rich countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa have taken a supportive but cautious approach. Monetary support for AI research and development, alongside the promotion of STEM education, has taken priority over AI’s integration within government agencies. It will likely remain that way for the near future.

While the above meritorious applications seek to solve gaps in development, the power of AI to augment skills and resource deficits can also potentially be harnessed by challengers to the state and by states that seek to suppress political opposition. Deep fakes, or the creation of artificial videos, voice recordings, and data, could be used to emphasize existing ethnic and religious divisions and to attack nascent democratic institutions. 

Alongside artificial misinformation, governments may also seek to use AI to further suppress and monitor political opposition or marginalized groups. With the help of China, the Zimbabwean government has begun collecting individuals’ facial imagery to be used by existing monitoring and facial recognition applications. These applications have human rights advocates worried about potential misuse once the system comes online. 

Finally, like the proliferation of telecommunication technology, negative AI applications may help to lower the cost associated with violence  by both non-state and state entities alike. Cyber-intelligence gathering, automated or augmented small arms, and AI-powered drones could all serve as vehicles in which to conduct progressively more violent operations at a lower cost.

Mitigating AI Cons In Africa

In a bid to to curtail the potential for negative AI, a brain trust at the nexus between global, regional, and local governments should seek to establish a common framework for effective governance of internet-enabled technologies. Such a framework should ideally attempt to curtail the malignant use of the internet, data, and AI applications.

In early 2018, Microsoft formally launched its campaign for a Digital Geneva Convention to advance industry and civil society efforts to reduce “the dangers of malicious and escalatory state behavior in cyberspace”. The African Union Commission in early November 2018 presided over the Seventh Internet Governance Forum on the theme of “Development of the Digital Economy and Emerging Technologies in Africa”. This forum focused on several key areas, including protecting human rights while harnessing the potential of internet-enabled economies.

The African continent will be forced to face unique challenges with negative AI. Weaker governance structures, transitioning democratic norms, and highly salient ethnic and religious divisions will likely struggle to minimize the damage associated with negative AI. This requires strategies that are inclusive of African researchers and experts who can recognise both threats and opportunities for positive use.

Conclusively, intergovernmental organizations should seek to partner with AI entrepreneurs and corporate actors in Africa while simultaneously providing training to government officials in AI and digital forensics. Additionally, the effective use of digital forensics may help governmental institutions more quickly identify fabricated media so as to remove inflammatory content and de-escalate violence after exposing the fraudulent content.

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1 comment

BryanSep January 24, 2024 - 3:37 am

Thanks for wonderful info. What trips can you recommend in 2024? Astro tourism, eco diving, home swapping, train stations are the new food destinations,sports tourism, coolcationing, gig tripping, private group travel?


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