Artificial intelligence centre could expand economy

Artificial intelligence (AI) could expand Africa’s economy by a staggering US$1.5 trillion – about 50% of its current gross domestic product – if it could only capture 10% of the fast-growing AI market, set to reach US$15.7 trillion by 2030, a new report has pointed out.

As part of efforts to stimulate the already fast-growing AI sector on the continent, a Pan African research centre will be set up in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, to build scientific capacity, enhance academia-industry collaboration in artificial intelligence and enable knowledge-based sustainable development.

Supported by the Ethiopia-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the Congo’s African Artificial Intelligence Research Centre (AAIRC) – which follows shortly after a similar development in Algeria – was unveiled at the third Africa Regional Science, Technology and Innovation Forum (ARSTI2021) held in Brazzaville from 24 to 25 February.

At the event, the ARSTI2021 report, highlighting the economic potential of AI and entitled Harnessing Emerging Technologies: The cases of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology was also launched.

Mahieddine Djoudi, professor of computer sciences at the University of Poitiers in France, welcomed the news about AAIRC.

He told University World News that the centre could help in solving some of the most pressing challenges facing Africa and boost sustainable development, especially in climate change, education and health.

“Indeed, the Republic of Congo is in a special sub-region, endowed with natural capital, such as immense forests. However, these forests have been disproportionately depleted compared with those in other parts of the world, in part due to climate change,” Djoudi added.

Professor Mokhtar Sellami, the director of science, technology and innovation at the new Algeria-based National Council for Scientific Research and Technologies, told University World News: “A regional AI centre such as AAIRC, along with the national ones in other African countries, are excellent opportunities to strengthen African capacities and could be an ideal tool for implementing an AI African strategy, which is being developed under the supervision of the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development.”

Professor Seyfallah Bouraoui of the University of Science and Technology in Houari Boumediene in Algeria said the centre could support a multisectoral strategy of development and innovation as it would increase exchanges, processing and analysis aimed at sustainable development and a green Africa.

Bouraoui hoped that the centre would focus on providing quality training, centred on the themes of AI and its applications, to upgrade trainers’ skills to prepare the scientific and industrial workforce.

This should include the monitoring and developing of innovative research projects aimed at achieving the objectives of sustainable development along with upgrading, updating and transitioning to new technologies.

“African universities should be involved in AAIRC by gathering their best experience in terms of training and research and by offering the best experts in the field of AI,” said Bouraoui, who is the lead author of the conference paper “Artificial Intelligence facing COVID-19 pandemic for decision support in Algeria”.

The establishment of the new centre is in line with recommendations of the ARSTI2021 report as well as the 2021 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report on technology and innovation entitled Catching Technological Waves: Innovation with equity.

Advantages of AI development

While Africa and Latin America account for a combined share of about 1% of the 70 largest digital platforms, Africa has all the right ingredients to capture a large share of the AI-driven economy to advance its social and environmental well-being as it has a young, curious, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial population that is increasingly educated, the ARSTI2021 report pointed out.

“The main advantage is that Africa is not starting from a scratch, but just from a low base,” said the report.

According to the ARSTI2021 report, almost all countries in Africa have a university or universities with computer science, mathematics and-or engineering departments that could easily include AI in their teaching and research programmes.

African countries also have businesses that are exploring AI applications (financial, insurance, travel and hospitality industries) and government units that are or could incorporate AI in their services (education, health, public utilities).

In addition, countries such as Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa have attracted some of the world’s top digital firms to set up research units that develop AI products.

Growth may imply harnessing AI to create additional high-value and decent jobs, bring about a reduction in poverty, increased productivity of firms, better living conditions and enhanced environmental well-being, according to the ARSTI2021 report.

Six African countries, namely, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya, Togo and Ghana, are among the top 20 over-performing developing countries, according to a readiness index of 158 countries included in the UNCTAD report.

The report assessed the progress of countries in using frontier technologies, including AI, considering their national capacities related to physical investment, human capital and technological effort.

This news report was updated on 5 March 2021.