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Asia and Africa: The future global leaders in AI and AI research

Anna Wall

Amie Haven, Journalist

A 2018 MIT report suggests that Asia has the capacity to become the world leader in AI. What are the drivers behind Asia’s leadership capacity? And where does Africa stand with its burgeoning AI research agenda?

Artificial intelligence is undoubtedly a hot topic. Films like The Terminator, AI, and I, Robot make artificial intelligence an accepted part of our culture and help us picture what an AI future might look like.

But for governments, academic institutions, and businesses the future of AI is being driven largely by economic concerns. According to the 2018 MIT Technology Review Insights / Research report, Asia’s AI agenda: The ecosystem – to remain competitive in the global economy, having a thriving AI ecosystem is key. However, in a MIT Technology Review article published on June 21 this year, Karen Hao demonstrates how Africa is developing a thriving AI research community by applying AI within a context of unique social issues.

With Asia’s strong AI ecosystem and Africa’s thriving AI research community, these two continents are set to lead us into a future where AI is at the heart of our everyday lives.

Asia’s strong AI ecosystem

According to the 2018 MIT Technology Review Insights / Research report, Asia stands out as a future global leader in AI. Countries like China, Japan, Malaysia, India, and Singapore are developing core competencies which – when fully integrated – form a sustainable ecosystem that would place Asia at the head of AI innovation and application.

AI has the potential to make businesses more efficient whilst improving the quality of products, and it also has applications across healthcare, education, and transport sectors – making AI the technology to develop for future competitiveness.

It looks as though countries in Asia have fingers in all the pies. Asian governments, academic institutions, and businesses have been working together to future-proof businesses using AI, whilst also investing heavily in AI applications that tackle regional social issues and infrastructure problems.

Asian governments have provided many incentives for tech companies to develop their AI applications. China in particular offers tech companies’ subsidies and preferential policies. However, big data is needed to develop algorithms and China is also well-placed to provide this. With 1.3 billion images captured on a national database, facial recognition software has a wealth of data it can harvest.

Asia, as a trade mecca, is well-placed to utilise not only its own AI resources, but to draw on resources from around the world. This may be key for Asia to strengthen the AI ecosystem, as the MIT report suggests that collaborative research has received little attention in Asia, whilst the application side of AI is well-developed. It seems that Asia may want to look to Africa as a potential collaborator, as the African AI research community has taken advantage of their relative isolation to develop AI tools with real social benefits.

Africa’s thriving AI research community

A strong AI ecosystem relies on interdependence and the global integration of knowledge and resources. And whilst Asia has been taking advantage of global resources in its AI applications, African researchers have struggled to engage with international collaboration – visa issues make travelling to conferences a logistics nightmare.

However, there are benefits to conducting research outside of the wealthy bubbles of Big Tech. Pockets of research done in isolation can produce new innovations and original thinking that are not shaped by the culture of voracious economic gain. Much of the research in Africa has taken advantage of unique contexts to develop AI innovations.

Over the last 6 years, Africa has been developing its machine-learning research. Organisations like Data Science Africa and Deep Learning Indaba provide a source of information sharing. And whilst long-term economic competitiveness is a concern for all countries, African countries have immediate issues to address, like food security, poverty, and affordable healthcare. Researchers argue that the process of research-to-model-to-application is much quicker when you are immersed in the context of the research subject. Research into crop disease in Tanzania led to the creation of a model that works on farmers’ phones to detect early signs of disease and allow farmers to save more of their crops.

Africa’s advances in AI research has attracted international attention. The 2020 AI conference ICLR is due to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, whilst Big Tech companies like IBM and Google are also establishing themselves in Africa. Google recently opened an AI lab in Ghana, whilst IBM Research has offices in Nairobi and Johannesburg.

As Africa begins to share its research with the world, it may find Asian countries seeking to collaborate on research to strengthen the AI ecosystem – ensuring that Asia can take its place as the global leader in AI.

Things to consider – the risks to data privacy

The fever of AI is contagious. It is hard not to get caught up in the endless possibilities and potential solutions for the world’s problems. However, with big data being key to developing AI, privacy is set to become an area of fierce debate.

Countries like China, where data privacy is lapse, are at an advantage. Countries where data privacy is protected are likely to be less competitive in AI research and development, making their contribution to the AI ecosystem weaker.

Governments will no doubt be feeling the pressure to harvest more and more data from citizens, making the ethics around AI research and development a key area that should not be subsumed by the fervour of economic gain.

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