Africa must reap the benefits of its own data

Tshilidzi Marwala at Business Insider: “Twenty-two years ago when I was a doctoral student in artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of Cambridge, I had to create all the AI algorithms I needed to understand the complex phenomena related to this field.

For starters, AI is a computer software that performs intelligent tasks that normally require human beings, while an algorithm is a set of rules that instruct a computer to execute specific tasks. In that era, the ability to create AI algorithms was more important than the ability to acquire and use data.

Google has created an open-source library called TensorFlow, which contains all the developed AI algorithms. This way Google wants people to develop applications (apps) using their software, with the payoff being that Google will collect data on any individual using the apps developed with TensorFlow.

Today, an AI algorithm is not a competitive advantage but data is. The World Economic Forum calls data the new “oxygen”, while Chinese AI specialist Kai-Fu Lee calls it the new “oil”.

Africa’s population is increasing faster than in any region in the world. The continent has a population of 1.3-billion people and a total nominal GDP of $2.3-trillion. This increase in the population is in effect an increase in data, and if data is the new oil, it is akin to an increase in oil reserve.

Even oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia do not experience an increase in their oil reserve. How do we as Africans take advantage of this huge amount of data?

There are two categories of data in Africa: heritage and personal. Heritage data resides in society, whereas personal data resides in individuals. Heritage data includes data gathered from our languages, emotions and accents. Personal data includes health, facial and fingerprint data.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google are data companies. They trade data to advertisers, banks and political parties, among others. For example, the controversial company Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data to influence the presidential election that potentially contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections.

The company Google collects language data to build an application called Google Translate that translates from one language to another. This app claims to cover African languages such as Zulu, Yoruba and Swahili. Google Translate is less effective in handling African languages than it is in handling European and Asian languages.

Now, how do we capitalise on our language heritage to create economic value? We need to build our own language database and create our own versions of Google Translate.

An important area is the creation of an African emotion database. Different cultures exhibit emotions differently. These are very important in areas such as safety of cars and aeroplanes. If we can build a system that can read pilots’ emotions, this would enable us to establish if a pilot is in a good state of mind to operate an aircraft, which would increase safety.

To capitalise on the African emotion database, we should create a data bank that captures emotions of African people in various parts of the continent, and then use this database to create AI apps to read people’s emotions. Mercedes-Benz has already implemented the “Attention Assist”, which alerts drivers to fatigue.

Another important area is the creation of an African health database. AI algorithms are able to diagnose diseases better than human doctors. However, these algorithms depend on the availability of data. To capitalise on this, we need to collect such data and use it to build algorithms that will be able to augment medical care….(More)”.