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Can Artificial Intelligence Change the Face of Africa?

Can Artificial Intelligence Change the Face of Africa?

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In the age of technology, it’s surprising that African leaders are not making any comments on using AI to solve governing problems, even as the conversation is going on in the rest of the developing world…

By Chimezie Chika

ChatGPT is about to change the world as we know it. It’s about to change how we think, how we work, create, and pursue human interests in all spheres of life. The application is suddenly confronting us not just with the kind of knowledge we normally see on Google but a rather smart upgrade on it, with way better functionality to boot. It articulates rather than shares knowledge. Using factual evidence, trends and knowledge across niche areas, it infers, considers, draws conclusions and makes informed guesses. To put it mildly, what this means is that we are suddenly staring at near-human intelligence emanating from a computer screen. What this means is that key words guiding very complicated human tasks could be input into the system and—voila!—the task is done.

ChatGPT—short for Chat Generative Pre-training Transformer—was developed by OpenAI as a machine learning model artificial intelligence (AI) Chabot that can generate human-like text. It has been programmed with a massive amount of data, which allows it to understand and respond to a wide range of questions, information and prompts fed into it. The developers have said that the technology is still in its research phase and aims to improve upon the current model in the coming years. Though still not fully developed, the ChatGPT app clearly has shocking abilities.

(Read also: How Technology is Redefining the Work Culture in Africa)

Suddenly, new possibilities have opened up to the human world, both negative and positive. With ChatGPT’s ability to carry out tasks related to language and cognition, including computer programming, music composition, ability to write poetry, stories, song lyrics, student essays, answer test questions, and multiple simulations, among other things, many things about the world as we know it is about to change. Perhaps we are at a point at which, even while being open to the possibilities of technology, we have become suspiciously aware of AI as a potential usurper, a threat to human existence. There are already projections of future job displacements in music, literature, healthcare, academia and other nominally human professions. The fear is palpable. It’s almost as if our unspoken fear has congealed into a voice shouting into our ears, as if heralding an impending catastrophe: humans, run. AI is coming! 

This human fear is raising existential questions. “What will a person like me do in a world littered with AI systems that can write essays with human-like nuances and emotional intelligence in just seconds?” At that point, the designation of “writer” or “author” will no longer carry much ethical weight or meaning. Same is possible in healthcare where there may be changes in traditional methods of medical procedures and healthcare assistants may no longer be needed. AI is not exactly there yet, but it’s on its way.  There are similar concerns in academia too. Students could get assignments and tests done in seconds without any brain effort. Perhaps we are gradually transitioning into a time when any random person can feed key words into an advanced AI system and have an accomplished research paper ready in two minutes. This will predictably have far-reaching consequences for the future of education and scientific research.

Between December 2022 and January this year, social media was awash with excited people recommending the wonders of an AI-enabled application, Dawn AI, which has the ability to generate artistic avatars of photographs uploaded on it. The arrival of AI art has not been completely welcomed with open arms. There are already discussions around the ethics of AI-generated art and what it means for the artistic world. AI has been proven to imitate artistic trends and styles across centuries of art history with varying degrees of success.

(Read also: New Technology in Arts and Entertainment: What Does it Mean for Africa)

To be honest, all these foreboding are a possible eventuality but, perhaps, not with so much negativity. Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote that he considered an app like ChatGPT an ally, claiming that it could assist educational goals by making reference lists, generating first drafts, solving equations and tutoring. The benefits of AI, too, can be as affecting as the fears surrounding it. While an AI-powered app like ChatGPT is not perfect yet, it offers a glimpse into what the world might look like in a hundred years’ time, at which point there may either be pretty nothing much left for humans to do, or it could help speed up human advancement in all spheres of life. Surely, it is not too hard to picture a world filled with intelligent machines carrying out everyday tasks for our own benefits. There is certainly a sense—a huge reason actually—in which AI is there to offer us a helping hand.

Since the advent of technology, humans have sought to develop systems capable of carrying out human-like tasks. The goal is to make human life easier and reduce hazards where possible. Beginning from the 1950s, scientists and engineers started making attempts to develop powerful computers with cognitive human abilities. AI today is a long way away from the early years of analogue computers and huge IBM nodes. It surrounds us now in almost every aspect of our daily life. It is in Google’s search engine, voice assistants in phones and handheld devices, in self-driving cars, in recommendation systems on social media and applications, in gaming systems, and other places.

Here, we can perhaps begin to understand how these features can help our daily lives. And it is here that Africa can tap into AI for the benefit of its future. Many areas of Africa are in dire need of help amidst mediocrity and incompetence in politics, health, education and infrastructure. The reaction to AI here can be entirely positive; welcoming AI and its great prospects into our ever-changing world. How can Africa appropriate AI technology for its own benefits and advancement?

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First, we must start by noting that the legacy of Africa’s problems usually revolves around crises of leadership, education, infrastructure and economy. Within these is an intricate web of cause and effect which finally balloons into the humanitarian or economic crises that is evident in much of Africa today. A versatile technology such as AI can be employed by African leaders in education and healthcare, especially. AI can improve the poor quality of education in Africa in the area of teaching. They could serve as effective teaching assistants and administrators. In healthcare, another problem area in Africa, AI offers possibilities in the areas of practical medicine and in medical research. A medical AI bot can help improve diagnosis and projections on certain illnesses.

(Read also: Will the Virtual Culture be the Future Working Environment of Africa?)

In the age of technology, it’s surprising that African leaders are not making any comments on using AI to solve governing problems, even as the conversation is going on in the rest of the developing world. It is not as if we are not aware of the immediate problems that AI poses in the continent. It will be difficult to adopt AI in a continent perpetually confronting problems such as draughts, poverty, and lack of electric power. On the other side of the spectrum, elaborate AI systems could help totalitarian regimes in Africa consolidate power and destabilise democracy and free speech. In the wrong hands, AI could be used in fraud rings. We cannot ignore these cons, wherever Africa is concerned. These are certainly its familiar problems.

AI can change Africa as we know it, for good, but there is a catch. For AI to be adopted in African countries, there must be responsible governments. An exceedingly powerful tool such as ChatGPT, for instance, must be treated with caution—perhaps with appropriate legislations guiding it, as some people have suggested in the West—to guard against its abuse. To move to the next level of development, while catching up with the rest of the world, African countries simply cannot do without AI. For one thing, it touches every aspect of human interest; it could aid the burgeoning music and film industries in Nigeria. It’s even possible at this point for tech companies in Africa to start developing Africa-modelled AI systems. Nigerian writer and linguist, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, is already involved in using AI-enabled technology to create better representations for Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo languages in tech. At the moment, there is interest in using Artificial Intelligence to solve efficiency problems in language instruction, education, tech, telecommunications, and business. And although there is an increasing number of companies (about 40%) in Africa specialising in AI, Mauritius remains the only country so far to adopt a national AI strategy.

In April 2022, Chatterjee and Dethlefs, researchers at the University of Hull in the UK, expressed fears that the developing world is being left behind in the use of AI in public service. One reason they give is the cost of developing AI systems (financial and environmental costs), which could prove too huge for African countries already saddled with daunting internal problems. Amidst these problems of misappropriation and cost, is Africa ready for AI? Of course, it is possible for African countries to work towards developing their own sustainable AI models for their future development, but they also need to solve long-running problems of poverty, bad leadership, and poor infrastructure. Without these, they cannot move forward with the rest of the world.

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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