Africa’s Struggle to Harness AI: The Urgent Need for Machine Learning Investment

Picture: Independent Newspapers.

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The prognosis of Africa keeping up with the pace of global technological pace is gloomy, and few can find a reason to think otherwise. Where Southeast nations from South Korea to China have allocated billions of dollars in the next decade to empower their youth with machine learning skills, Africa seems constipated by an array of bottlenecks, most of which are self-made!

You will not be faulted to beam if you appraise the recently announced National Planning Commission. No commissioner was solely named to lead the fight to empower our youth with state-of-the-art technical know-how to embrace the latest skills in machine learning.

Machine learning is pivotal to powering artificial intelligence and similar areas. AI is replacing human labour and intellectual input at an accelerated speed, and Tanzania, like the whole of Africa, is ill-prepared.

If you parse through the names of the commissioners, you can easily discern political considerations rather than the demands of the modern challenges guiding those appointing decisions. Most of the commissioners were handpicked because of whom they knew rather than what they brought to the table. Sometimes, you cannot help but feel these positions may be doled out to appease certain demographics within the political, academic, and gender fraternity!

Even the commissioners’ announcement was long on paper qualifications with zero attempt to laud their feats or potentiality. AI was not even mentioned as the future of this country during that fete!

Since AI is not prioritised, it is a small wonder we have every reason to fear the worst will slowly but surely descend upon us. Maybe a revisit of what AI can do to create meaningful jobs needs to be emphasised here to comprehend the magnitude of the problem.

For starters, machine learning is an acquisition of top-notch skills that will enable the recipient to write up programs after learning the prerequisites of computer languages such as Python, among others, applying data analytics.

Read related: AI in Africa: Tanzania’s Tryst with Technology and Tradition.

Machine learners may be able to build digital machines known as AI that can perform certain functions better than human hands. Such tasks may include cleaning, building vehicles, fighting wars, piloting planes and warships, analysing complex data, and providing information which ordinarily may not be accessible under conventional wisdom.

AI now poses a major threat to conventional employment opportunities, foreshadowing that many jobs will be taken by AI, condemning many to joblessness. However, those equipped with machine learning skills will be able to, behind the keyboard, transfer those jobs to machines, which will be more efficient and effective.

Let us take a few scenarios to broaden our understanding of the imminent potential benefits of machine learning. If you need legal services, no problem. There will be an app to answer all your questions, from preparing your legal arguments and precedent citations to writing your summons and submissions.

Will you need a lawyer when a machine can do a better job than a lawyer at a token fee compared with the colossal fees lawyers charge? The answer ought to be negative.

You need to design a beautiful building for yourself instead of consorting with an architect, a quantity surveyor or a civil engineer. You click a few keys on your keyboard, and a building with all the specifications, costs, and types of building materials pops up on your screen, like champagne, to your delight.

Will you consult professional builders who charge you to the roof, or will you pay a peanut to an app to secure even better services? You know the answer to that without my persuasion.

Also read Strategies to embrace Tanzanian Education with AI-Powered Tech.

What about a petrol station grappling with muggers who prowl the area to steal from your customers? Well, robots can open and fill the tank and communicate the cost to the driver, who has to prepay through another app without stepping out of the car.

If you want to start a cleaning company, you cannot handle the labour costs of the cleaners. Well, relax. Robots are there to clean the palatial homes of your clients without you having to resolve theft allegations against your cleaners or not doing the job up to acceptable standards. Your income keeps growing, letting you smile at your banking account.

Need medical advice? Well, there is an app instructing you on how to deal with your medical predicament, advising you on the tab, and showing you where you can get the prescription; the machine has subscribed for you. For surgeries, the machine will attend to that better than human hands. Bye-bye to surgeons who never build relationships with their patients and end up operating on an organ that needed no operation. Forget extortionate nurses and doctors who demand bribes before they attend to your ailments.

You need drones to perform a myriad of functions from being a courier to waging your battles, machine learning is a complex tool you need to master, and transcend you to the technical services unimaginable even today, to most of us.

The list of ways AI will revolutionize our lives beyond our imagination is endless, and conventional jobs will expire. So, how do we prepare to take advantage of this boundless opportunity?

Can We Cite How AI Has Fared in Tanzania?

Let us examine one example of how AI has fared in Tanzania. We look nowhere but a Mange Kimambi app, a Tanzanian product. Some may be grappling with the controversies behind the content inside this app. Our aim is impervious to those polarising issues but transfixed on how the youth have benefited from it.

According to Mange Kimambi, the building of her app ran into costs and stumbling blocks until local Tanzanians gave her a viable option that was very affordable to her. We saw local talent getting the job of building her app and a lifetime contract to maintain the app through updates and bug fixing.

If that was barely enough, many unemployed youth have become I-reporters who snoop into the sleazy affairs of the mighty in this country and earn a generous income. We may question the ethical, moral, and impact such salacious exposès have on our society, which is a frenetic debate for another day, but jobs have been created, and Mange Kimambi is now a multimillionaire, and his gratitude to machine learning is above reproach.

Preparing to Cash in on AI

The first step is to invest in machine learning as a priority. In all schools, from kindergarten, we need courses to prepare our knowledge-hungry youth to master the intrigues of machine learning.

To achieve this challenge, education should be free for those pursuing AI in higher learning. Public colleges and universities must set up faculties dedicated to machine learning, and government bursaries should cover those students’ full costs.

We are fully cognizant that India has promised to bridge the global digital divide to our collective joy, but it is definitely a small drop in the ocean. We should not be contented with that gesture of goodwill.

We need to seize our machine learning destiny with both hands, boldly and with swagger. We owe it to future generations, just as we are thankful for what our forefathers have bequeathed to us.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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