Unless you have just woken up from a coma, you have no doubt been bombarded by the hype around Artificial Intelligence (AI). The importance of AI was formally acknowledged at World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016, which was held under the theme of the “fourth industrial revolution”. The founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab set out three characteristics about the ongoing transformation that marks it out as a new phase rather than a prolongation of the current digital revolution — velocity, scope, and systems impact.
What is AI?
Like anything in life, the best place to start is the beginning — what exactly is AI and what makes it hype worthy? AI can imitate the human brain, which makes it unique among technologies in that it can learn and solve problems that would normally require human intelligence. AI involves the understanding of natural language, visual perception and pattern recognition, and decision making. AI runs off machine learning which occurs through observation and experience instead of just relying on rules and logic. Computer programmes generate own algorithms based on example data and a desired output.
Artificial intelligence can be classified into three basic categories
Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) which is limited in scope and restricted to just one functional area such as the programmes that play chess or other board games.
Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) which is more advanced and usually covers more than one functional area such as power of reasoning, abstract thinking, or problem solving on par with human adults.
Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) is the final stage in which AI surpasses human intelligence, though we are still a few decades away from this stage.
The future is already here
The globally significant tech platforms are actively pursuing AI, examples includes recognisable names such as Amazon Machine Learning Services, Google DeepMind and TensorFlow, IBM Watson, and Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite, among many others.
AI is already in regular use in some of the applications we rely on for our daily convenience, Google Maps uses AI to dynamically learn traffic patterns and create efficient routes, smartphones use AI to recognise faces and verbal commands by learning your accent, AI enables efficient spam filters in email programmes and powers smart assistants such as Alexa and Siri.
What does this
mean for Zimbabwe?
A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EUI) reviewed the impact of AI on manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and transportation sectors and found that it could significantly boost GDP. This view was echoed by MIT Sloan School of Management economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee who warned the AI could increase inequality in the world. Countries that move quickly to adopt would experience a significant increase in their GDP while laggards stagnate or regress.
There are legitimate concerns that AI will eliminate certain job categories, though this will, no doubt be offset by job creation among higher-skilled job categories. This is not all together surprising because the introduction of revolutionary technologies has historically led to job losses in some sectors, for example, the car industry effectively decimated the horse and carriage industry.
A silver lining in a dark cloud
While AI creates significant risks for Zimbabwe, it also brings massive opportunities. Zimbabwe, like most emerging economies often suffer from inefficient delivery of basic services, such as finance, education or health.
Therefore, AI presents a unique opportunity to build from the ground up a system that is fit for purpose. The lack of infrastructure allows us to leapfrog the existing epoch and build for the new era without the burden of legacy systems, for example, in Zimbabwe the lack of fixed landline infrastructure allowed people to go straight to mobile telephones.
In this new paradigm, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production, this means that with the right education and training, Zimbabweans could compete head-to-head with the best in the world. The barrier to obtaining new skills has been dramatically lowered by the availability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
In the challenges that we currently face in health, AI enabled medical diagnostics can be designed to improve the speed and reliability of analysis and can be particularly beneficial in the rural and underprivileged areas where there is a lack of trained doctors, radiologists and other medical personnel. AI could assist doctors to make better decisions, but also assist less qualified but trained medical personnel such as nurses and nurse-aides to take decisions that are traditionally left to doctors.
One of the major bottlenecks in the economy is lack access to credit to finance capital expenditure. There are systems that support payment transactions via mobile phones such as Ecocash and could provide relevant information about spending and saving behaviour to an AI application which can make decisions on an applicant’s creditworthiness. This has already been launched to some degree in Kenya through the M-Shwari functionality.
The challenge ahead
To access the opportunities created by AI requires a co-ordinated nationwide approach that will bring together all the various stakeholders to draft a comprehensive plan on how to be ready. This is an opportunity that is too big to miss — it demands our immediate collective attention.
Lesley Ndlovu is a UK based financier with extensive experience in insurance and asset management. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford and INSEAD Business School and can be reached on [email protected]