Tuesday, January 23, 2018

9 ways Africa can use AI to leapfrog into the future

Africa is huge. Just how huge is rarely appreciated but this map helps. This massive landmass makes land transport difficult, physical internet cabling difficult, infrastructure difficult. But with two spots from one satellite, it is possible to cover the entire continent. Bad or non-exiting infrastructure is the condition for leapfrogging. 
So here's a question.... What African leapfrogged the transport and energy sectors to such a degree that the oil economy look as though it’s on the way out? He did this by seeing the existing model as the problem – the oil economy - so created the self-driving, actually AI-driven, car and panels/batteries that change the way we power homes, even entire regions. He is, of course, Elon Musk,  a leapfrogger. But Africa leaps over frogs in all sorts of ways, from mobile banking to drones for blood delivery.
The first technology, the stone axe, was invented by early hominoid species in the rift valley in Africa, that allowed us to leapfrog other species, who may have been stronger and faster, but lacked the technology to compete. The first writing in the Nile Valley, again in Africa, on the first flexible writing material, Papyrus, also invented in Africa, allowed the Egyptians to leapfrog other civilisations, a stable civilisation that lasted continuously for 4000 years, longer than any other Empire ever. The very tools and technology that the modern world is built on were first seen in Africa.
There’s a lesson here – the ‘Leapfrog Principle’. This is the idea that one can innovate in environments where precedents and incumbents are poor, primitive or absent, easier than in wealthier or technologically richer environments. Africa can, again, be the crucible for leapfrog ideas and development. In finance, healthcare, energy, agriculture and education, AI can augment and improve productivity.
Leapfrog 1  Finance
Africa had little in the way of a retail banking infrastructure and most people did not have a bank account. Along comes the ubiquity of cheap mobile devices and Africa does what richer countries are only now waking up to – mobile banking. In its wake came advantages in communications, finding work, paying bills and agricultural information - markets, teachniques and so on. The runaway success of M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer service launched by Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile operator and Vodafone, in 2007, has allowed millins to pay bills, buy goods, receive remittances from abroad and even access learning. None of this would have been possible without AI-driven encryption and now AI as the new UI interfaces.
Leapfrog 2  Healthcare
Take Zipline, in Rwanda, where drones deliver blood to rural locations. Doctors request blood for ‘at risk’ patients and drones deliver, dropping the protected packages by parachutes, from 30 feet, into the backyard of the clinic, aided by GPS and navigational software. This is fast, cheap, efficient and saves lives. Why Rwanda? Well the road infrastructure prohibits speed of delivery, there is less regulation to hold back these innovations and, as a small country, it is ambitious and willing to take more risks. Older countries tend to become more risk averse. Strangely enough it is sometimes the absence of physical infrastructure; roads, fixed line telephone networks, transport options, power stations, oil reserves, that make leapfrogging more likely. The investment in leapfrog technology has less competitive pressure from incumbent technology and infrastructure.
Leapfrog 3  Energy
The International Energy Agency states that there are over 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa that do not have access to electricity. An African startup, Off Grid Electric, backed by Solar City, wants to rack up the supply of solar panels across Africa, with at an affordable charge of $7 a month for the system. It already powers 125,000 households. Musk has taken technology built for the wealthy car industry and applies it in a modular, LED, robust, affordable way to an African problem – no infrastructure and low income. The project has the possibility of scale and sustainability to the 1.3 billion people globally who lack access to affordable electricity. In the continent of sunshine, solar leapfrogs other forms of energy supply.
Leapfrog 4  Algorithmic agriculture
The perfect storm of satellites or drones with analytics of water, wind damage, soil condition, temperature and so on, even predictive software may lead to step changes in productivity. Precision agriculture turns AI into real solutions, in everything from GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, GPS-based soil sampling and so on. Getting the most out of every centimetre of land, sensors for yield prediction, scanning for disease and damage, productivity gains are there for the taking. In agriculture, data can fed software to increase yields to feed people.
Leapfrog 5  Entertainment
This one's often forgotten but African's love music and, arguably, gave us the Blues, Jazz and what became Rock 'n Roll, even Rap. Mobiles deliver everything from ringtones to radio. I remember an NGO worker in Uganda telling me that whenever they tried to use devices or flash drives in education, they were co-opted for music! Bt this goes well beyond music with services for photo-sharing and movie distribution. What's interesting here is the way African needs have forced the likes of Netflix to develop new AI-driven compression techniques for delivery in low bandwidth environments
Leapfrog 6  Investment
Leapfrog Investments is an investment company that specialises in African and Asian investments. This matters, as growth needs an ecosystem for sustainable success. It needs risk capital to make those leaps, not of faith, but of assessed risk. Others include Carlyle, TPG and Abraaj. Unfortunately, start-up finance in Africa is paltry at less than $150 million. Africa is going through a population explosion with young, tech savvy populations that are used to mobile solutions. We need to harness their energy and talents.
Leapfrog 7  Starnet
Musk is buiding a Starnet system which is a satellite system that delivers high bandwidth internet to the world, especially sparsely pupulated areas. This promises to accelerate progress in Africa. An African will have come full circle and delivered what the continent needs to do the things it wants.
Leapfrog 8  Education
Let’s apply this principle to learning. The current problem in Africa is poor schooling, and the need for vocational skills, along with sensitivity to local languages. This is where AI comes in. Think of these two letters as the hind legs that allow the frogs to leap. OK, I know this metaphor is being stretched a little but bear with me….  One of the barriers to leapfrogging is education. To escape from the trap of poverty, one needs vision, confidence and competence. Rather than rely on foreign workers to provide practical skills in building and tourism, we must focus on vocational skills. It is pointless investing in higher education when there is no middle ground. This must happen at school and college level. Africa is going through a population explosion with young, tech savvy populations that are used to mobile solutions.
It is in education that leapfrogging can have the greatest causal effect. AI can create online learning cheaply (WildFire), and through AI assisted translation, create such learning in multiple languages. AI can personalise learning through adaptive systems. (CogBooks). This helps build a platform of knowledge delivery, so hat teachers can focus on skills. In the same way that blood type has to be selected or every patient, learning needs to be delivered to each person in a way that suits their needs – and the diversity or variability of these needs is much greater in Africa, than in a developed country. This is not the primitive Hole-in-the Wall or tablets parachuted into villages approach but scalable, sustainable learning to help teachers teach and learners to learn.
Don’t dump devices in developing world. That’s not leapfrogging, it’s device dumping. Sugata Mitra and Negroponte have both made a career out of dumping devices into the developing world and teachers lap it up as if they’re some sort of saints. Listen carefully – they don’t like teachers and schools. Researchers, like Arora, from Erasmus University Rotterdam, “little real independent evidence, other than that provided by HiWEL“, accusing Mitra of “not comparing amount of time spent on hole-in-wall material with same  time in school… making the comparison meaningless”. It was, she concluded,“self-defeating… ‘hole-in-the-wall’ has become the ‘computer-in-the-school”. This was confirmed by Mark Warschauer, Professor of Education at the University of California, who also visited sites, only to find that “parents thought the paucity of relevant content rendered it irrelevant“ and that “most of the time they were playing games…. with low level learning and not challenging”. The “internet rarely functioned” and “overall the project was not very effective”. I also visited a site, in Africa, and confirmed all of this and more. Read Mitra’s comment on my blog, “it took me 30 minutes to think about and write this response. I would have spent the time on planning a new project for very poor children. Would someone, perhaps Donald, like to take the responsibility for this wastage and the resultant loss to them.” Sugata Mitra. This is what happens when devices trump reason.
Leapfrog 9  Research
Google has opened up and AI research centre in Accra, Ghana. They see the potential and this is the first of the large tech companies to make such a move - it won't be the last. The African market is huge, its human potential maturing and the possibilities for the innovative use of AI certain.

But let’s not underestimate the problems. Corruption, unstable political environments, poverty and weak regulatory environments don’t encourage investment and sustainable growth. To leapfrog, one must have solid ground from which to leap. Without a stable platform, these will be leaps of faith or leaps into the darkness. Innovation is only innovation of it is sustainable, that means stable regulations, a war on corruption and an investment environment that supports staged growth. Let’s start with education.

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