Keberte Tsegaye, soon in her thirties, works as a doctor at Alert public hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Slim Fendri, in his fifties, produces olive oil in the Tunisian valley of Meknassy; Quillinah, 12, is a student at the Bethlehem Community Center in Kenya’s Kayole Slum. These three citizens of the African continent – and others – have, in recent weeks, one thing in common: they are helped in their daily lives by an artificial intelligence (AI) … without necessarily knowing it.
Smartphone in hand, Keberte Tsegaye takes advantage of his lunch break at the hospital to follow on Facebook Messenger the French lessons of the LangBot conversational robot. His mother tongue is Amharic. Slim Fendri, a pioneer of organic olive oil in Tunisia, has been testing Phyt’eau, an intelligent irrigation system since May, to save water while optimizing the oil quality of its octogenarian olive trees. When in Quillinah, she uses the M-Shule app every night after class, a personalized SMS tutoring program that combines AI, neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
These mobile uses tell a new African reality: “We are experiencing a moment of change”, observes the Tunisian Mehdi Khemiri, “business angel” and “serial entrepreneur” whose last start-up, Favizone, offers a conversational robot that advises consumers in their purchases. “We are seeing innovative projects and a true start-up culture emerge across Africa, even though some countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa have gotten ahead. In Africa, continues the graduate of Polytechnic, “we are not trying to create the future Google but to find relevant and technologically innovative solutions to solve everyday problems.”
In the areas of health, education, environment, these AI-based consumer applications are emerging on a continent where smartphone is growing exponentially. “The number of devices, currently 350 million, is expected to double by 2020,” said Karim Koundi, partner at Deloitte Africa. Prices fell from $ 80 to $ 30 in just two years, thanks to the emergence of devices made specifically for Africa. ”
Africans increasingly connected Africa has definitely moved into the mobile age. “The equipment rate is now around 100%, and in many parts of the continent mobile is the only way to communicate,” says Karim Koundi, partner at Deloitte Africa. Africans, more and more accustomed to being connected in any place and instantly, plebiscite the smartphone, whose growth is exponential. “The number of devices, 350 million currently, should double by 2020,” says the expert. All inhabitants of the continent are not yet housed in the same sign. Mobile uses are different “between coastal countries, where the quality of connection is better and the prices of communications are lower, and the others, such as Chad and Niger, more isolated; but the difference is decreasing, “Karim Koundi analyzes. Now, according to him, “80% of the inhabited territory” is now covered by mobile networks. African citizens adopt similar habits to users from other continents. “To talk to each other by mobile phone, they use less voice in months and prefer to connect by applications such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype. “An evolution with direct economic consequences:” Telecom operators are threatened to become only suppliers of pipes. Intelligence moves to services and applications, “notes Karim Koundi. The popular applications, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype belong, respectively, to Facebook and Microsoft.
These applications feed on user data to offer ever more personalized services. Sign of recognition, the start-ups who designed them are selected or awarded in innovation competitions such as the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge (for M-Shule), IBM Watson AI Xprize (for Ubenwa, a Nigerian application allowing to diagnose asphyxia of the newborn), Seedstars (for LangBot and GiftedMom, a Cameroonian application accompanying pregnant women) and Bloom Masters (for Phyt’eau).
This entrepreneurial effervescence is made possible thanks to a new technological reality: the “cloud”, this remote data storage service. “Before the cloud, you had to buy servers, licenses that could cost thousands of dollars, to create artificial intelligence models and test them,” explains Mehdi Khemiri. Today, with a few hundred euros, we can embark on a project that can develop very quickly. In Africa, the obstacles are more technological, says the entrepreneur: “From now on, the only barrier is knowledge. ”
This situation has not escaped the major global groups of digital and telephony, aware of the pool of innovation represented by these frugal start-ups from a continent where the average age is barely 20 years. Hence the proliferation of “hackatons” creative sessions to several developers, and competitions, such as the first “Bots for Messenger Developer Challenge” for the Middle East and Africa, organized by Facebook in June 2017 and open to developers from 64 countries.
“What happens in Africa with artificial intelligence illustrates the global village,” says Karim Koundi. We are witnessing a race for the ecosystem: the big players in the cloud – Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, IBM – as well as the major telecom operators – from Orange to MTN via Maroc Telecom – are positioning themselves as start-up incubators. They look for talent in Africa and offer the conditions for these talents to develop at home. ”
On Wednesday, June 13, Google announced the creation of its first AI research center on African soil in Accra, Ghana. For this research, which will be specialized in health, agriculture and education, Google has launched in the wake of social networks a call for applications for researchers in “machine learning”.
Risk of “cybercolonisation”
For the mathematician and French deputy Cédric Villani (The Republic on the move), author of the recent government report on artificial intelligence, the strategy of these major private actors brings a geopolitical reading. “It’s a big opportunity for entrepreneurs,” he says. However, “the problem concerns, in a more diffuse way, the governments and the institutions, there is a risk of capture of the value and the competence by the foreign institutions”. It’s a bit like what we already knew in France, he continues:
“The word is very brutal, but technically it’s a colonial-type approach: you exploit a local resource by putting in place a system that attracts added value to your economy. It’s called cybercolonization. It is a risk for society, for societies as a whole, because all that is taken by private companies serves to defend the interests of private companies and not the common or general interest of a country. It’s a question of balance of power. “
Can we already talk about cybercolonisation in Africa? “Too early to say,” said the elected Essonne, who, during his academic career, has developed many relations with African countries. “But it is possible, if we are not careful, that what will happen in Africa is in the continuity of what has already happened in the Western world. Cybercolonization will not be as violent as historical colonization, of course. But in economic terms, it can be extremely powerful. ”
In order to perpetuate the African creativity in AI, “it would require a state will, a major involvement of the States to understand that the research is part of the investment of the countries”, adds Guinean Abdoulaye Baniré Diallo, director of the laboratory of bioinformatics from the Université du Québec à Montréal and laureate of the last Next Einstein Forum, in Kigali, which rewards outstanding researchers.
While Europe has just adopted a new regulation, the RGPD (General Regulation on Data Protection), which frames the use of data, the fuel of AI algorithms, the speed of technological development in Africa illustrates the race of large private companies to take positions on all continents. Will African researchers who are sensitive to these data protection issues be able to convince governments to take it up?