Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in Africa
Updated: May 9, 2021
We spoke to Akinmodun Bode, CTO of Liensy Robotics about what robotics and AI might mean for most countries in Africa that experts argue are yet to have properly transitioned from the first and second industrial revolutions.
What piqued your interest in Robotics and AI, and how has that changed over the years?
Robotics has always been an interesting field for any one who is opportune to see its application either in sci-fi movies or research applications. My major interest in robotics is due to the fact that robotics is one of the closest fields where humans can be closer to creation. The ability to make a system that can perform specific biological functions of a human such as locomotion, movement and the different forms of audible and visual perception functions of a human has always fascinated my inquisitive attributes from a very young age to this day. Also the very fact that this can be accomplished much more easily today than it ever once was is a great feat that draws even more of my attention to the field of Robotics and Ai.
What are the opportunities in AI and robotics for young people who may want to get involved?
A big part of the future is automated. Automation using Ai and robotics will dominate almost all sectors and fields of human endeavor presently and moving forward. There are many roles that will need to be filled by todays young ones and future generation in ensuring that the rapid developments in the field of both AI and Robotics are met.
STEM education will be a key determinant in supporting this drive and meeting the world needs for scientists, researchers and engineers that will manage the new life we would have with technological advancements present and coming. As said earlier most if not all fields and industries will be touched by automation in one form or the other and so research, engineering and good knowledge on the use these systems regardless of the field youths choose to endeavor into will be required for relevance.
If unemployment is still a challenge in Africa, and we have teeming youth, do you think we really need AI and robots?
There is a misconception about robots and machines taking over jobs which has to do with the fact that the taking over of jobs is not clearly understood. Robots and automation systems are clearly going to replace many existing job, but that is because these jobs finding it hard to find replacement workers, as well as earning very low incomes. Also many jobs to be replaced are repetitive or dangerous tasks that cannot be performed optimally by humans without constant efficiency issues that arise from the “human factor” such as fatigue and influence on mental and creative capacity. Africa needs more automation than it can currently afford to get across all industries especially in agriculture, production and manufacturing industries which will enable us to reach our biggest potentials.
Some people say Africa has not even gone through the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions. Do you think we are prepared for the Fourth?
I am a strong advocate for Africa to learn from its lost past, but not from a technological standpoint. Technology is bound to move forward and not backward. And catching up is dependent on staying up to date with current technological trends. With todays type pf technology, there is no significant need for the majority of development to focus on past technologies, rather new technology should be used to train a new set of thinkers which are the present generation.
An analogy would be the introduction of the mobile phone into Nigeria. The mobile phone was already predominantly used in developed nations in the late 80s and early 90s. Yet we did not need to use those same devices at the beginning of our journey into wireless communication. Rather the new mobile phones where introduced into the system and we caught up with the trend till date.
Is our education preparing people for this transition?
Presently I would say no, a majority of the African education system is not preparing for the new times, yet there are many positives as private institutions are increasing in pushing STEM education into the system. The current stage of development in STEM adoption is currently steady, yet with more favorable public and government policies, the growth will be significant. Also a much needed acceleration by government in the government schools as well as core research funding in higher institutions will go a long way in fast-tracking current steps.
What can you say about the African Tech Ecosystem and how might it affect the implementation of AI?
AI is more of a research endeavor than just the application. There is presently a huge disconnect between local research in AI and the tech ecosystem. Without local AI research both at tech companies and in academia, we remain tied to application of foreign solutions with foreign bias with are not tailored to the African ecosystem.
The current state of African tech ecosystem is laudable in some regards, but yet in others not so much. There is a good adoption and readiness for adoption of new methods by the new generation based on accessibility to the world wide web. Internet communication has made the world a smaller place enabling youths and this new generation to gain the new knowledge they need to be relevant for the future even with the failings of the local education system.
More Africans are now self aware that they can redefine their future and channel the path for the destiny regardless of the limitations of the environment they find themselves. More systems need to be put in place to ensure that the data that is being used to make decisions have information created and collected locally, as AI decisions will be based on what is fed into it. I will advocate for government to collect its own data locally and fund research programs to this effect to ensure that we are not left out of the AI race altogether.
What should we be doing differently along the AI and robotics line?
One solution is for STEM education across all levels of academia being explored and infused into the curriculum as a minimum requirement. The foundation of both AI and Robotics is heavily tied to STEM education and preparing the new generation for the future workforce.
Where does government come in?
Government is responsible for all the Policies, infrastructure and research funding.
Finally, the "Singularity". How far do you think Africa is from that, and what will it mean when it does finally arrive?
I will not say Africa is afar off individually but collectively, as many individuals and new thinkers are clearly on par and even ahead of some of their peers in developed nations. But collectively African Countries have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to making the right policies and allocating resources that ensure that it can compete with the rest of the world.