From the time the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was first captured in 1956 as just an academic discipline a lot has changed, and in many ways, too. Since then “innovators and researchers have published over 1.6 million AI-related scientific publications and filed patent applications for nearly 340,000 AI-related inventions.” The volume of publications points to the effort already committed by the research community in its evolution. The long running optimism about its potential to disrupt the way we live, learn and work, and ultimately fuel economic growth is becoming a reality more than ever before. But just like every major innovation in the past, only those countries or organisations that are prepared to explore the possibilities and exploit the inherent opportunities will reap the huge benefits.
What the numbers are saying
According to a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers , it is projected that “artificial intelligence technologies could increase global GDP by $15.7 trillion, a full 14%, by 2030.” The report contains a projected GDP gains from AI by different regions of the world as represented below:
- China: $7 trillion.
- North America: $3.7 trillion.
- Northern Europe: $1.8 trillion.
- Africa, Oceania and other Asian markets: $1.2 trillion.
- Developed Asia $0.9 trillion.
- Southern Europe: $0.7 trillion.
- Latin America: $0.5 trillion.
Quite like in many other areas, China is particularly very ambitions about its role in AI. It has set a target of becoming a global leader in AI by 2030, committing to building a local AI industry worth $150 billion by 2030. And it is prepared to make an investment of $7 billion. Even the city of Shenzhen is investing as much as $1 million to support AI labs. However, China is not alone in this quest, a report by the Brooking Institution states that “investments in financial AI in the United States tripled between 2013 and 2014 to a total of $12.2 billion.”
To further appreciate the progress being made by some countries and organisations in AI, a data analysis done by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WTO) on the AI-related patent applications comes handy. The data shows that, of the top 500 AI patent applicants, companies account for 333 while Universities and public research organizations make up the balance, 167. Of these 333 companies 109 are US-based. And of the 167 universities and public research organizations 110 are based in China. While the data does not tell the entire story, it sure does say a lot about the huge AI investments coming out of USA and China.
It is interesting to note that some individuals, organisations and countries are not just putting down money for research; they are also investing in setting up and advancing critical structures and frameworks for optimization. For instance, in 2017 a group of parliamentarians in the UK in collaboration with the Big Innovation Centre set up All-Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence (APPG AI) to “explore the impact and implications of Artificial Intelligence”.
In the United States, just last month, President Trump issued an “Executive Order creating the American AI Initiative”. Also, there has been a push by a number of congress members on the “Future of Artificial Intelligence Act,” a bill that promises to create policy framework and legal principles that will underpin the future of AI. The legislation seeks to (among other things) promote “climate of investment and innovation to ensure the global competitiveness of the United States, optimize the development of artificial intelligence to address the potential growth, restructuring, or other changes in the United States workforce, support the unbiased development and application of artificial intelligence, and protect the privacy rights of individuals.”
Furthermore, by the second quarter of 2019 it is expected that Russia would release its strategic plans on AI. Meanwhile, last year, its investment in AI was reported to have doubled. The European Commission are following closely behind, it recently released “a working document for its AI ethics guidelines”, and a final version is being expected.
These steps are necessary and encouraging because without strong legal and policy structures, the progress is bound to be stalled and the industry will be marred by controversy.
Where is Nigeria (and Africa) in the Loop?
Nigeria (and Africa) always lag(s) behind in technological innovations as they also do in many other areas of endeavour. It is a painful assertion, but quite empirical. It would not be surprising to discover that the little progress happening around Nigeria and Africa in AI is mainly private sector driven. Public funding for AI research does not seem to exist, if it does exist in Nigeria, it will surely be quite insignificant.
Africa’s recognizable step in AI started only over a decade ago according to a report by Techcabal . In 2008, a South African company BrandsEye began to use “a proprietary mix of search algorithms, crowdsourcing and machine learning to mine online conversations for sentiment and provide that data to enterprise customers.” A year later a start up company in Egypt, Effectiva, followed suit. And it has “raised $34 million in venture capital till date”.
While the general progress is nothing to write home about, a few works provide a glimmer of hope about the unimaginable possibilities within Africa when innovation is supported. The successes recorded so far with a pilot project by UN Global Pulse and the Stellenbosch University in South Africa to “build speech recognition technology that uses machine learning to convert public discussions in radio broadcasts into text that can be read in several of the languages spoken in Uganda, including Luganda, Acholi, Lugbara and Rutooro” is one of such positive signs.
One of the big issues with Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) progress in AI is the seeming lack of strategic and proactive steps by the government toward creating a conducive environment that enables innovation to thrive. But If Nigeria desires to benefit from the huge opportunities AI promises, it must embark on a disciplined, wholesale policy reforms matched with the necessary, substantial capital and infrastructure investments. Only then will many more organisations like Andela and the Co-Creation Hub, which are contributing to some form of talent development in AI, spring up.
Nigeria (Africa), be warned!
Some knowledgeable people, are already warning that “the cheap manufacturing jobs of the 21st century belong to AI and not human beings. So, anyone pushing the path of industrialization to create low-level jobs is already disrupted. Yes, a farm in England has no single farmer, from planting the crops to harvesting them. Simply, no one is sending you cheap labour from the Western world to Africa because machines will do them!”