Building Sustainable Societies with Artificial Intelligence

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The recent directive from African leaders to all information communication technology ministers to develop a common strategic framework is a wake-up call for Africa to harness the power of Artificial Intelligence to achieve her digital transformation agenda, writes Emma Okonji

At a recent African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, African Heads of State directed their information and communication technology (ICT) ministers to develop a common strategic framework for Africa-wide digital priorities and initiatives. In response to the request and consultations with ministers present, including the Nigerian Minister of Communications, Dr. Shittu Adebayo, the International Telecoms Union (ITU), hosted a special meeting of ICT ministers on 29 March, at the ITU headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

The ministers discussed how to boost ICT development, how to attract and encourage further ICT investment, and how to work together to facilitate new partnership opportunities so that Africa can reap the best benefits of the digital economy.

According to ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, “The ministers are at the forefront of building a new digital Africa that leverages the tremendous potential of digital technologies to improve lives.”

The ministers reviewed inputs submitted by the ministers themselves and discussed how to build a common strategic framework and roadmap for action and coordination.

The meeting took into account proposals on key areas such as: infrastructure, investment, digital transformation, including digital platforms and services, digital skills and entrepreneurship, cybersecurity, a common digital market — and policy and regulatory imperatives that cut across all these areas.

“I am very pleased with our preliminary outcomes on how to build a framework to work together across the continent.
“I am eager to see this discussion develop, knowing that common frameworks can help overcome the hurdles to investment that can often stifle progress. Let’s work together to make this vision a reality,” Zhao said.

AI in health sector

Addressing the potential of AI towards achieving digital transformation in health sector, the General Manager of Baidu Health, Ms. Huang Yan, was of the view that much has been said about the ability of AI to greatly enhance productivity. According to her, unlike the industrial revolution where productivity was improved for labour-intensive work, AI extends that power to knowledge-based work, helping humans make better, faster and more insightful decisions.

She said this technological advancement has great potential to address the imbalance of resources and help build a more equitable society. Speaking on how AI can improve healthcare, Yan said: “Educating and training doctors has traditionally been a time-consuming and expensive process, taking an average of more than 10 years. This long lead-time is especially problematic for developing countries where lack of resources for education can lead to doctors being undereducated, or worse, under-trained.”

ITU, WHO promote AI

Considering the importance of AI in achieving digital transformation in the health sector, international bodies like ITU and World Health Organisation (WHO), played host to a recent ‘Artificial Intelligence for Health’ workshop, which held in Shanghai, China.

At the workshop, they made Africans to see how the application of AI could help address fungus diseases, which are a major cause of blindness in the developing world like Africa, if not treated properly. According to the participants at the workshop,

AI helps solve this issue by studying large amounts of decision-making examples from medical experts, then putting that information into use by assisting doctors to make better diagnoses and treatment decisions.
Rather than replacing the doctor, AI is there to empower them to make better decisions. Citing an example of the AI Fungus Machine that Baidu developed in collaboration with Chinese hospitals, participants at the workshop agreed that by learning from abundant precisely labelled fungus images using an interpretable evidence-based architecture, the system has achieved a comparable diagnostic accuracy of a professional ophthalmologist with 10 years above experience.

AI and global ethical obligation

According to the workshop, healthcare aside, AI also has the potential to play a pivotal role in a wide range of global issues and social causes, such as addressing poverty, dealing with natural disasters, improving education, enhancing public safety, and preserving cultural heritage, and all these are pointers towards achieving digital transformation.

Challenges of AI

Although the workshop listed the benefits of AI across all sectors of the economy, it also looked at some of its challenges that must be quickly addressed. According to participants at the workshop, as AI technologies continue to develop and AI-powered machines assume more roles, the impact of a system failure grows exponentially. That’s why the industry is demanding – and rightfully so – that the standard for safe and reliable AI is higher than any other new technologies in the past.

“AI presents incredible challenges and countless opportunities for society. Creating an ethics framework to balance the relationship between humans and machines, in conjunction with clear lines of responsibility, are part of the foundation for developing AI. As AI continues to grow rapidly and impact more lives on a daily basis, it is increasingly important for governments, companies, academia and the public to come together to discuss and collaborate on the rule making of AI,” the workshop resolved.

AI and fear of job loss

Despite the many advantages of AI in driving digital transformation, some people are of the fire that the application of AI could lead to loss of jobs. Neil Sahota and Michael Ashley, authors of ‘Own the AI Revolution’, however listed four key steps African governments could take to limit job displacement with AI application across all sectors.

According to them, ‘We see reports that AI will also create more jobs than it replaces, as there will just be different kinds of jobs.

But what we discovered when researching the book’s material, particularly interviewing thought leaders, is that there is often a flip side to everything AI-related. Like any significant tool, from the train to the computer, AI possesses both the ability to cause havoc and help at the same time.

AI as a force for digital transformation

One of the founders of the AI for Good Global Summit, Stephen Ibaraki, is of the view that the application of AI is a force to reckon with while thinking digital transformation, especially in developing continent like Africa.
“This year there is actually some data indicating that, because of enhanced capabilities and productivity, as well as a growing economy, jobs may even increase rather than decrease,” Ibaraki said.

Frederic Werner of ITU was of the view that “With AI, we can use mobile phones to detect conditions, like skin cancer or diabetes. There’s already an app to analyze suspicious skin growth alerting users when they should go see a dermatologist.”
While acknowledging some jobs will be replaced, especially manual tasks, Ibaraki suggested an even greater number may be created in what’s being termed the coming ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ that may yield an increase in wealth of $16 trillion by 2030.

Potential breakthroughs with AI

Again, providing a counterpoint to many of the concerns surrounding AI raised in public, two ITU officials described the breakthroughs this technology is having in key areas of economies.
“I see AI having a large impact on healthcare very quickly,” says Frederic Werner, the Head of Strategic Engagement Division for ITU’s standardization sector. It’s helpful in developed countries, like the U.K., where it can take up to a year to get an appointment with a specialist,” Werner said.

Nigerian perspective on AI

In Nigeria, several experts in ICT are strongly canvassing for the fast adoption of AI across all sectors of the economy, which they said is a sure way of achieving digital transformation.

The Chief Executive Officer of Galaxy Backbone, one of the agencies of government that is providing digital connectivity to government establishments, Mr. Yusuf Kazaure, who, spoke at a recent ITU event, disagreed with those who have apprehension about the application of AI in education, health, telecommunications, oil and gas, in the area of job loss, and advised on the need for quick adoption of AI in Nigeria and other developing countries , because of its many advantages in enhancing digital transformation.

According to him , “The way technology is fast evolving, it is obvious that everything needs to be automated in line with technology advancement and we cannot achieve this without the application of Artificial Intelligence.”
He described AI as an enabler in data analysis and the application of the results obtained from the data analytics in achieving various feats across all sectors of the economy.