The Managing Partner, Verraki Partners, Mr. Niyi Yusuf, in this interview speaks on the need to equip young Nigerians with skills needed for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Emma Okonji brings the excerpts:
How would you explain the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in technology disruption in the 21st century?
AI is when human beings design machines which some people would call computers to have in-built intelligence and be able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, which is underpinned by fast access to large storage of previous interactions, records, data and then connecting the dots which help to identify a trend and anticipate responses to varied situations. AI is what makes machines have enough intelligence to look at data, spot trends, connect various dots and be able to provide a response even to a previously unknown situation. While human beings have self-awareness, social, business and emotional intelligence aiding our ability to respond to various known and unknown situations, machines will only do what they have been programmed to do. Now we have taken machines a notch further to give them a sense of ability to respond to unknown situations using historical or similar occurrences and machines are now able to demonstrate visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, translation between languages, predict traffic situations, suggest books to read or video to watch.
Technology automation through the use of AI has been linked to job losses, yet employers are encouraged to embrace the technology. What is your view about it?
We do not have a choice than to embrace change because AI would come whether we deliberately embrace it or not, a smarter question we should ask is ‘How to prepare for it’? Out of about seven billion people in the world, Nigerians are only about 200 million and if we refuse to evolve with the rest of the world, no one will wait for us. So, it would be in our interest to prepare for it. And on job losses and automation, I would argue that automation has a net positive effect although it affects individuals in different ways. Some individuals may lose their jobs while some individuals may get better jobs but, on the aggregate, the world has always been better because of automation. This is the fourth industrial revolution, we started off as farmers and them move to the industrial age and people lost jobs but, on the aggregate, the industrial age expanded territories, conquered new markets, created new products and also created new kind of jobs. In the United States of America, with a population of about 330 million, less than two per cent of the population is in the agriculture sector, and it is gradually declining as the years go by but interestingly, agricultural yield has increased tremendously because they now use advancements in technology to improve seeds varieties, soil testing, fertilizers and other innovations. If history is anything to go by, I say that with AI we are more likely to create more jobs though there would certainly be job losses in certain sectors because the number of routine repetitive tasks are likely to go and would be taken over by AI and robots. More jobs will be created around design; human-centered design. Now people talk about roles like data scientists, user experience designer or cyber security which clearly didn’t exist many years ago. Many jobs will disappear, but many new jobs will also be created.
Since you strongly feel that AI will create jobs, what are some of its associated challenges that should be addressed?
I think the challenge is how one develops skills and competencies to be relevant in the new world but I am optimistic that in the end, we would create more jobs. Sadly, of recent, most inventions start from the West, where they are likely to gain the benefits before we do and that keeps me up at night. What will be the effect of these new technologies be on Africa? So for me I think we should begin to develop digital skills that will address the challenges that come with new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Robotics among others.
There has been an uptick in activities within the AI space in Nigeria. How does your organisation perceive and use AI?
We have been having conversations with clients and with ourselves in terms of where AI can be used. The first thing is to understand what AI is, so we have undertaken training programmes to better understand topics like Design Thinking, Machine Learning, Artificial Learning, Robotics Process Automation (RPA). That is the first step to get everybody to understand the new way and to speak the lingua and then we can now have conversations with clients and ourselves, create internal projects to deploy the use of AI such as automate repetitive tasks like reconciliation, customer service, chat sessions; and also then deploy these solutions for clients.
How can organisations like Junior Achievement Nigeria (JAN) that you are a board member prepare youths in line with emerging technologies like AI?
It is popularly said that knowledge is power. I think the first thing to consider is exposure. Let youths know that there is a new phenomenon called AI and what it means and how it is used for good. Because again everything is a double-edged sword; a knife could be used to spread butter or cut someone. So, I recommend JAN teaches AI. Sow the seed while our youths are in primary or secondary school, sow the seed in their minds, and create the awareness. The second is when we are running our JA Company Programms, we can develop projects or businesses around AI like what we are seeing now in Lagos where quite a few Fintechs and start-ups are creating interesting and amazing products using new technology concepts. There is nothing stopping us from having our company programme and students embracing the use of AI in the development of their products. Verraki is ready to work with JAN to pilot the integration of basic AI principles into the company program, to build an army of young Nigeria talents that can begin to leverage AI.
What practical steps should policy makers take to ensure smooth transition to the age of AI?
First thing is to understand what AI is, and the second thing is to understand the implications and then the third would be to know ‘thyself’. Where are we as a nation in terms of AI? How mature are we in adopting AI? Then define how we can use AI. Once we know how close or how far we are, we can then define a strategy of how to bridge the gap. Develop a strategy of how we want to embrace it, not how we want to hide from it. We also need to make sure that we are inclusive so that we do not create different classes or different groups of people who believe in AI. We wouldn’t want to create that inequality, so the thing is how do we make every Nigerian to be AI informed or AI aware at the basic level? I believe JA Nigeria can help because given the number of students that we reach, number of volunteers or partners that we have, our ecosystem; if we preach and spread the AI gospel or technology gospel as it were, we could help people become more knowledgeable.
What is your view about the fourth industrial revolution and digital economy?
From a skills perspective, the fourth industrial revolution and digital economy we are experiencing will require an army of technologists; whether AI, Augmented Reality or Robotics who will build and foster this new world. Nigeria can quickly take advantage of these and develop people that will play a major role in this new world, similar to what China has done. JAN and other players can work together to train our youths on digital skills and position them to be active players and contributors to the emerging technology driven world.