We Need Urgent Regulation For Artificial Intelligence In An African Context

By Zale Hechter

We may think of Artificial Intelligence as some obscure, futuristic concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is associated with scenes from “out-there” sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Terminator. But AI is already here and being used in a wide variety of technological developments that make our daily responsibilities more efficient and convenient. In fact, scientists believe we are already ‘cyborgs’ because we already have a ‘digital self’, which lives into perpetuity. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is intelligence demonstrated by machines and contrasts with natural intelligence displayed by humans. Towards Data Science says “Artificial Intelligence is the ability of a computer program to learn and think. Everything can be considered Artificial intelligence if it involves a program doing something that we would normally think would rely on the intelligence of a human.”

Artificial intelligence is currently being used and employed in increasing measure across all spheres of business and industry. It is technology behind navigation and ridesharing apps you use when ordering a ride and the facial recognition functionality of digital banking. Digital assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistance are all AI-powered and can take voice commands and translate them into actions. Incredibly, AI can also be used to do the chores we hate most: there is an AI-powered vacuum cleaner that scans a room, identifies things in its way and finds the quickest route to clean a space. AI is behind Netflix’s personalised ‘watchlists’ as well as driverless vehicles.

As we contemplate a future with AI in an African context, it’s interesting to consider the thoughts of prominent ex-South African, SpaceX and Tesla founder, Elon Musk. Musk is very close to the cutting edge of Artificial Intelligence, and he admits that ‘it scares the hell out of me’. 

For efficiency, accuracy and agility in a digital economy and in order to have one that can trade and collaborate with other nations, AI is here to stay. Simply put, those industries and businesses that don’t move with the times and fail to adopt AI are going to be left behind. 

Musk highlights that AI is capable of vastly more than anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential.  The output of goods and services will be expedited and there’s the potential for goods and services to become more cost effective. With automation, will come abundance. 

However, that abundance will come at a cost as Musk sees mass unemployment as a big social challenge of the future. He predicts that a universal basic income will be necessary as there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. 

The difficulty then, of course, is how we find meaning as human beings? What would our purpose be if we are displaced by robots? How do we ensure the future is one we like and want?

Musk states that “We need to find some way of ensuring that the advent of digital super intelligence is one that is symbiotic with humanity. That’s the single biggest existential crisis we face and the most pressing one”. 

AI in an African context 

As I see it, Africa has a unique context and although current AI technology is readily available in digital banking, navigation and ride-sharing apps used on the continent, we urgently need to put regulations and policies in place that govern the use of AI in our businesses and societies. 

Our greatest danger is that in our bid to keep up with the rest of the world, we leave our people without employment opportunities, having a catastrophic impact on our already fragile post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

Self-driving is rapidly developing and is becoming safer than a person driving on the road, resulting in substantial reductions in accidents. But what does the coming of autonomous vehicles in South Africa mean for our taxi industries, which are the most predominantly used mode of public transport in Africa? Would it put the industry out of business? How is our Department of Transport going to regulate their introduction to our roads? And how will the taxi industry react?

The threat of AI to the African continent is that if we don’t regulate how AI is used, it has the potential to extend and expand the digital divide by making humans redundant. Beyond that, AI can threaten the relationships that make us uniquely African. 

Although part of being human and part of being alive is making mistakes, we need our modern-day workforce to strive for excellence, personalised service, and customer connection, which the best AI will never be able to replicate. 

I think the job force needs to recognise that some robots and technologies employing AI can be competitors to our human workforce. If bad service, serious inefficiencies, and human error cost businesses too much, they will no doubt prefer to implement AI solutions over human capital. 

The importance of regulation  

Musk, who is not normally an advocate for regulation, argues that regulation and oversight are critically important when it comes to AI. He argues this is a case where a very serious danger exists to the public and calls for public bodies that have insight and oversight to ensure AI is being developed safely. The danger of AI is much greater than nuclear warheads, he says. The regulator oversight is frighteningly lacking. 

The importance of retaining our humanity 

AI, as I see it, should not strip us of the core of what makes us human.  

The implementation and adoption of AI in an African context needs to take place in a symbiotic way that does not erode or diminish our African essence. Culturally in Africa, relationships and communities and the expression of our cultures and religion are incredibly important. We need to ensure that our rich heritage, culture and diversity are not destroyed or diminished by our desire for convenience and efficiency. 

Likewise, AI should be developed with the mindset of uplifting people and building economies that support – and does not compete with – humanity.

At Cliqtech, although we use and develop AI tools to provide fintech solutions that never existed before, the core focus and intention of building our platforms and businesses is to enhance and promote financial and human wellbeing. AI that has no soul is indeed a dangerous prospect, but used with the right intentions, AI can serve us and improve our lives. 

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