Look to Africa to advance AI

If AI is to improve lives and reduce inequalities, we must build expertise beyond the present-day centres of innovation, says Moustapha Cisse.

There are many obstacles to an AI researcher from Africa making it into the global community. At a 2016 conference in Barcelona, Spain, attended by more than 5,000 people, I was one of fewer than 10 black people. In response, I co-founded Black in AI. It is now a thriving community of more than 1,000 students, researchers and AI enthusiasts ready to share ideas and foster collaboration to increase representation of black people. Despite the support, many of us still have trouble making it to conferences. I have had papers accepted at meetings but been unable to attend because Western countries such as Australia denied me a visa, even though I was already settled and working professionally in Europe.

We need more efforts to overcome these barriers and to ensure that the benefits of AI arrive globally. Many of the essential ingredients are already in, or coming into place. The human resources are there. Africa is home to the youngest and fastest-growing population on Earth. I am 33 years old, and that makes me older than most of the continent’s inhabitants (the median age in Africa is 19; in the European Union, 43). Enthusiasm is huge. Last year, the Deep Learning Indaba gatherings across Africa hosted 300 students from 23 African countries, and had to turn down more applicants than it could accept.

Financial resources are also becoming available. Last year, venture capitalists poured US$560 million into tech start-ups in Africa. Google is supporting and advising more than 60 through Launchpad Accelerator Africa. According to the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC, six of the ten counties with the fastest-growing economies are in Africa.

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