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The future of Artificial Intelligence in Africa: a joint responsibility

14 December 2018

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© UNESCO

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Africa and universal access to information and knowledge were at the heart of discussions during the UNESCO Forum on Artificial Intelligence in Africa that took place at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, in Benguerir, Morocco, on 12 and 13 December 2018.

The two-day Forum was opened by UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay, Morocco’s Education Minister Saaid Amzazi and the President of the General Conference of UNESCO, Zohour Alaoui. It brought together ministers, representatives of the private sector, experts, researchers and representatives of international and regional organizations, as well as NGOs and civil society actors from all parts of the world. Through round tables and thematic sessions, the conference examined the future of Artificial Intelligence in Africa, ethical issues for the continent, and ways in which AI can serve as a lever for sustainable development.

Artificial Intelligence is not only relevant to developed countries, but also important for developing countries, including in Africa. While the African continent sees a number of innovative uses of Artificial Intelligence, more can be done to guarantee access to information and knowledge through AI.

Countries in Africa face specific challenges in terms of infrastructure, skills, knowledge gaps, research capacities and availability of local data, which need to be overcome to fully harness the deployment of AI. To avoid exacerbating the existing digital and knowledge divides, it is essential to address these challenges and to raise awareness of the potential of AI for sustainable development.

Harnessing the potential of AI for Africa

The panel discussion on universal access to information and knowledge, and AI in Africa, moderated by UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information Moez Chakchouk, highlighted the efforts of governments and various stakeholders to fully harness the potential of AI.

Morocco underlined that its digital strategy takes AI into account, and the country has enhanced data access through the launch of an open data portal. Ruhiya Seward from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) presented how the centre has been actively supporting North-South cooperation in the mapping of AI ecosystems, as well as the promotion and establishment of regional networks in this regard.

Discussions also highlighted how the UNESCO Chair in Artificial Intelligence and the Knowledge for All (K4All) Foundation are carrying out a mapping of Artificial Intelligence start-ups, research centres and civil society organizations. Microsoft equally underlined how the company provides support to AI strategic plans for a range of countries, while also building capacities for start-ups through its 4Afrika AppFactory, which develops the digital skills, coding capabilities and workplace readiness of young people.

An inclusive approach for the development of AI

Panellists emphasized the importance of involving young people and innovative local AI start-up ecosystems to ensure access to information and knowledge. Davor Orlic from the Jožef Stefan Institute stated that Africa is not lagging behind, and that the continent would gain a lot from listening to its local AI ecosystem. Local start-ups can serve as incubators for skills development and business modelling to ensure AI entrepreneurship solves local development issues in innovative and efficient ways, with a particular focus on youth and women.

Nicolas Miailhe of the Future Society further underlined the importance of ensuring multi-stakeholder consultation processes, including through online platforms, to ensure the participatory development of public policies on AI.

Finally, in interacting with the audience, panellists also discussed the dangers of AI in encroaching on human rights issues such as privacy. Julie Owono, Executive Director of Internet Sans Frontières, underlined that “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be the reference framework for all aspects related to Artificial Intelligence, and more generally to all aspects associated with the Internet.”