Only three countries in Africa are well prepared for the take off of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and related technologies in 2021 according to a report released recently by Oxford Insights.
The survey, Government AI Readiness Index 2020, ranks Mauritius, Egypt, and South Africa the highest in the continent for their early adoption of AI and related technologies such as Machine Learning, Deep Learning , Computer Vision, Neural Networks, Robotics and Natural Language Processing.
Out of 172 nations that were involved in the study, Mauritius appeared at position 45, followed by Egypt at position 56 while South Africa ranked 59th.
Other countries that are showing commendable progress in spreading the awareness of the technology are Seychelles (68th), Tunisia (69th), Kenya (71st) and Rwanda (87th).
The survey paints the picture of a continent still struggling to recognise emerging technologies as a key driver in the global seismic shift of industries towards automation.
These results should come as no surprise, as African countries have historically lagged the rest of the world in technological developments. Despite the different generations of technology that African countries have ‘leapfrogged,’ they still face the persistent challenge of catching up, as the pace of technological change outstrips their leaping abilities,” states the report.
The top five countries in the world were the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany and Sweden, underpinning a continued dominance by Western powers in the technological arena.
Sub-Saharan Africa had the lowest score, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, and South and Central Asia.
Although many African countries do not yet have specific AI strategies, the African Union’s AI Working Group met for the first time in 2019 and aims to develop a regional approach to AI and exchange expertise between countries.
“Collaboration in this manner could help countries develop AI strategies, identify other regulatory and governance issues, and learn from regional best practice,” the report said.
In Africa, there is also limited preparation of appropriate regulatory and ethical frameworks; and governments themselves generally have low use of ICTs and low responsiveness to change, the report’s authors said.
Is Africa ready?
The 2020 Index is the third of its kind and aims to answer the question: How ready is a given government to implement AI in the delivery of public services to their citizens? The Index ranks countries by giving them a score out of 100, drawing on 33 indicators across ten dimensions.
Mauritius leads in Africa with an Index Score of 53.86. To date, the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to publish an AI strategy was released in 2018.
The strategy focuses on how AI can support the ocean economy, which comprises over 10% of Mauritius’ GDP. For example, it suggests investment into a maritime Internet of Things (IoT).
The strategy also established an AI Council that advises the government on supporting Mauritius’ AI ecosystem. Both the AI Strategy and the Mauritius 2030 Strategic Plan prioritize developing local talent, such as through making programming a required university course.
Leading in North Africa, the government of Egypt launched its national AI Strategy in 2019. The strategy has two pillars: building human capacity and supporting scientific research and innovation. Egypt has also created a National AI Council which is responsible for supervising the implementation of the strategy.
Although South Africa does not yet have a national strategy on AI, the Government has set up a Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to develop a strategic plan for South Africa’s 4IR vision.
Likewise, Rwanda expects to have a data protection policy in place by 2020, expecting it to indirectly address key AI-related governance issues.
In Africa, AI is already being employed in several countries and in various sectors, including banking, e-commerce, health, agriculture, energy, education, and industry. For example, the report found that at least 86 African companies in 17 countries were using 4IR technologies (including AI) in the agricultural sector.
The academic and entrepreneurial communities are particularly active. A mapping of emerging AI hotspots in the Global South identified 148 players in nine sub-Saharan African countries, mostly in academia.
In 2019 there were about 6500 technology startups in Africa, of which about 10% were focused on 4IR technologies such as IoT, Big Data and AI. The AI sector in Africa received about US$17.5 million in government and private sector investments in 2019, yet the potential of AI remains largely untapped, the report said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also demonstrated the strategic importance of AI in healthcare and governments worldwide.
“From the pharmaceutical companies using AI to assist with the development of new drugs and treatments to the use of AI to assist contact tracing with mobile phone and geolocation data, new technologies have helped governments manage the pandemic, and may well play a role in the economic recovery to follow,” the report said.