This decade has been a techventful one so far. Currently, Corona Virus has reignited the talk around the future of work, play & study as the whole world struggles to keep up with the current reality of work & life in quarantine times. All aspects of our lives have been affected by this virus and as the world struggled to embrace continuity & hold on to any form of normalcy, technology has been at the forefront of healthcare, learning, working, play & entertainment. Now more than ever, tech innovations have been at the top of the old & young and has affected every part of the world. Because of the talk about how different the world will be Post-COVID 19, we revisit this old post to highlight why Africa’s technological future is different than most predict;
A rising tide carries all boats
“The leader’s role is to define reality, then give hope.”- Napoleon Bonaparte
Technology changes but humans don’t
A tech-savvy Africa?-Marvel’s Black Panther Movie
February 2018 kicked off to a great start to the much anticipated Marvel’s Black Panther Movie that has since gone off to break records and set new ones world around. I’ve watched it thrice already and won’t mind another screening. From Tchala’s accent, Lupita just being awesome, local fashion, ladies kicking a**, Killmonger’s abs, and most importantly, a different depiction of the African continent, this movie definitely got the world talking about so many issues including racism, colonialism, women empowerment and 2 critical agendas in Africans minds today;
i. Can Africa lead in the world of tech?
BP created a movement of #Wakandans- proud ‘Africans’ who felt happy about finally seeing a ‘true depiction’ of Africa. A continent rich in resources but more importantly one that contains the ingredients to transform those resources into wealth through technology, leadership, systems, regulation & financing. We’ve had and continue having many tech conferences to address this question. But how far are we really on making #RealWakanda? As other continents such as EU prepare & arm their forces in order to conquer the new Industrial Revolution, sadly Africa is still misdirecting resources to issues we shouldn’t still be facing in this 21st century.
ii. Morality & humanity
Technology as a tool for advancement or destruction? Just like power, love, art, science etc. You choose. Vibranium to create Captain America’s shield or to be used to destroy the world. As tech plays a bigger role in every aspect of our lives, what does this mean about what separates us from machines? To decipher an emerging issue about modern tech -Augmented humanity-we look into another trending topic-ethics in technology.
Facebook’s F8-Is Technology bad for the world?
The world was brought to a stop this decade as millions of people tuned in live on social media to follow Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s US Senate hearing after the expose about Cambridge Analytica divided users. I was particularly shocked and disappointed by this findings as I watched how CBS reported Kenya’s election results were manipulated by data & some algorithms. But even as Zuckerberg defended himself & his company’s values, two things were clear last month. Man is to blame for the misuse of technology. Secondly, we have to be aware of the shortcomings of it as well.
The same fire that cooks a man’s meat can also cook the man.
Is Tech for us or against us? Eg SMEs all over the world have used Instagram to build their businesses. But as Kenyans on Twitter showed this month with their hashtag #ifikiewazazi, meaning let it reach parents, teenagers are using social media to post nudes and morally degrading videos that parents are unaware of. Technology is just but a tool. Just like the human mind. Which introduces us to April’s biggest buzz.
Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War-Who is the real villain in this story?
Isobar in its 2018 trends reports states that “ 2018 will be the year of Augmented Humanity, a year where technology enhances and scales our most human attributes.” and “ intersection of technology and humanity, magic and the machine, code and conscience.”
Augmented humanity is technology manifesting humanity’s greatest virtues. But what is man’s nature? We watch SciFi movies and brush them off as human imagination. But imagination stems from human desire. Then action stems from imagination. The greatest danger that befalls mankind is imagination. Imagination can recreate history, show the future and reconfigure the present. Then we use tools like technology to manifest our thoughts. But if we can imagine good, we can imagine bad. And hence create it. So how fictional are fictional movies really? Is it all fake? E.g are robots going to take over the world? Aren’t we doing stuff that 100 years ago would be considered impossible? So imagine what 100 years from now will look like. Well, I think people already are imagining & trying to create their dreams. No movie for me depicts the 5 tech trends so well like Ghost in the Shell 2017. The 5 trends from Isobar are;
1. Body Talk explores the body as an interface, as our eyes and ears replace touching and tapping.-Hello VR & AR. We see this in the movie as billboards & street signs disappear to 3D visuals and as eyes out rule Google Glasses.
2. Powered by People tackles the shift from customers to communities as technology turbocharges the sharing economy.
3. The Economy of Me looks at the power of AI to deliver ever more personalised products, prices and places. From plastic surgery to 2029 where humans can cyber enhance themselves to super-soldiers or even just for pleasure.
Scene from the movie:
Togusa: [to Ishikawa] Something’s different. What’d you get?
Ladriya: Why you always think he’s always out there enhancing?
Togusa: Because he is.
Ishikawa: [lifts shirt to reveal a scar] Cyber-mech liver. Been saving up for a while. Now it’s last call every night.
Togusa: You got enhanced so you can drink more?
Ladriya: Embrace enhancements, Togusa. We wouldn’t be here without it.
Togusa: I’m all human… and happy, thanks.
4. The Ethical Algorithm tackles technology as a force for good; in a world of fake news and algorithm bias is there such a thing as moral code?
Cutter: Will it work?
Dr. Ouelet: Absolutely. She’s a miracle. A machine can’t lead, it can only follow orders. A machine can’t imagine or care or intuit. But as a human mind in a cybernetic frame, Mira can do all those things, and more.
Cutter: The first of her kind. She will join Section 9 as soon as she is operational.
Dr. Ouelet: Please, don’t do that. You’re reducing a complex human to a machine.
Cutter: I don’t think of her as a machine. She’s a weapon. And the future of my company.
5. The Makers and the Machines explores the extraordinary union of art and technology to create outputs we could never before imagine.
Kuze: [Removing a piece of Major’s face] What a beauty you are.
#Ghostintheshellthemovie is an avid depiction of the future that people are imagining. What if we could save the intellectual capacity of some of our smartest minds? What if we could create artificial limbs to help accident victims or soldiers? And what if we combined both? Put a human brain inside an artificial body. Ethics in tech is a tricky topic because who decides what is moral & what isn’t? How far is too far with human creativity when it comes to technology? Take #exmachina the movie for instance. Depicting the world where robots exist among us. Now almost a reality. But it also shows that man’s desires cannot be controlled. So if we can create a woman to do house chores in the house, can she also do other things as well? Hello Samantha!
“We may have code that solves the problem of trust on the internet. We just don't know if trust is a problem technology can truly solve. As long as humans are the ones using it.”- Netflix Cryptocurrency explained
The last season of the highly acclaimed tech series Silicon Valley also brought up some of the issues emerging technologies bring. From the dangers of a completely smart form of intelligence that can manipulate its data, to engineering folk like Gilfoyle below opting to build an AI bot to interact with his conversations in place of him. Whether TV reality will meet world reality is yet to be seen although Tv has been credited as having predicted several things that have come to pass such as Simpsons sitcom predicting Trump as President.
As we continue to talk about the future of technology and how it will impact work & home, we owe it to ourselves to separate myths from reality and especially identify what is possible for Africa. Our continent has proven its ability in being able to leapfrog technology and this innovative nature of our people can mean we can create a different version of the technological future than what the rest of the continents predict for themselves. For instance, is self-driving cars viable for a continent still struggling with road infrastructure? Are robots a viable option for industries when we have the largest workforce in the world? Should AI & Bitcoin be introduced when we still haven’t built competency for cybersecurity and consumer protection? Should drones be introduced to deliver pizza when we have millions of motorbikes and carts being used by many as an income source? How soon do we see robot police manning traffic on our roads?
An extension of this debate is one on the future of work. Almost all FOW events have been focussed on spreading fear about AI taking over our jobs. One such webinar last week that I attended shared how millions of jobs will be replaced by tech including farmers & drivers. While this may or may not be true, I hope as we continue these debates & consume these reports in Africa we can question the following and hopefully start generating our own data & predictions and tell our stories.
- Who wrote this report? How diverse was their research pool? How diverse was the team?
- What kind of questions and data were they looking at during the research?
- What kind of research was done across emerging economies like Africa & specific countries as well?(Since we’ve seen tech can’t be replicated easily across different nations.)
- What kind of data already exists in Africa? What doesn’t?
- How true, verifiable & credible is it?
- How actionable is it?
The government as the custodian of people’s interest has to take into account these realities and the balanced equation that comes with tech innovation. If technology will take over the world and robots will soon be news anchors, is yet to be seen. By any nation. Whether these predictions will be true for Africa is an entirely different question. Africa is a unique space for innovative solutions which could mean a different future than what the rest of the world will experience. We can only wait and see. And the most important question of them all is the one raised by Eric Ries in the Book Lean Startup;
“The question of our time is not whether it can be built. But rather should it be built?”
So looking at the Can we/Should we framework for decision making, let’s explore this further;
- We should look at the problems emerging tech seeks to solve and ask ourselves, ‘Are we facing these same problems here in Africa? To what extent?’
- And if so, is this particular technology or method the best way to solve the problem in Africa?
- How has the problem been solved so far? What systemic issues exist in this area?
- Is this problem or opportunity a priority? Is this the best use of our resources & effort? Eg it would be ridiculous for an African Nation at this stage to spend billions of dollars to put a man on the moon when we’re still struggling with poverty, education, disease & unemployment.
- Do the people we’re trying to solve this problem for care?
- How much will it cost us to try and solve this? What gains possibly exist?
Also linked to the last question above, as Jumia found out the hard way and many ‘Non-African’ founders have found out, our continent provides opportunities and challenges in equal measure. This is why even Tech giants like Facebook, Google and even e-commerce giant Amazon are yet to set up a footprint in the land.
“Until there is substantial demand from consumers and substantial infrastructure to fulfill that demand, e-commerce will remain an afterthought for the likes of Amazon.”
Some of the challenges described in the article above & others include;
E.g in Kenya until recently the Govt did not allow the use of drones. Of concern to many investors working on scaling across Africa is the instability of leadership of many nations. Other issues such as subsidies, corruption, trade restrictions or tax policies all affect our tech enabled future.
Despite being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Africa has high poverty levels and income inequality. The fact that we also don’t have a single currency & different exchange, inflation, growth interest rates & taxation affects scaling. Disposable income of citizens & business is also very low with many people opting to spend their income on basic needs.
The high population growth in Africa is a blessing and a curse as well. This growth presents Africa as a top talent destination with an average age distribution of 19 and a ready workforce. However, health issues are still a primary factor with high levels of disease cases due to illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, Malaria & diarrhoea. It’s also worth noting how strong cultural preferences affect buying decisions in Africa. Some products ,thus, that work in other regions cant work here due to cultural beliefs and religion. An example of this is people refusing Bitcoin because of the lack of understanding of how such tech works & mistrust. Socially also, unfortunately, some careers aren't equally distributed across the region and even genders due to cultural perceptions including tech careers. This also affects value perception and ultimately salary evaluation & compensation for tech roles. Education also being one of the biggest challenges in the region affects our capacity to compete in the talent market globally especially for certain careers with some courses being completely unavailable in the continent affecting future prospects of development and creating talent training opportunities such as Andela Co. These differences across the continent make it harder to scale certain business and a one size fits all approach definitely will not work here.
As Amazon and even Google have noted, some tech issues we still face include lack of tech capacity to produce certain goods & crevices, tech immaturity in some regions, distribution channels are almost non-existent, communication is still a barrier because of language barriers as well as connectivity levels, internet costs & access, smartphone prices, and the low return on investment as witnessed by Jumia. Facebook & Google, for instance, has had to invest millions of dollars into spreading internet connectivity across the regions as a way to increase usage levels of their products.
The decline of raw materials as a result of pollution & colonialism, climate & weather disasters including floods and drought, environmental legislations, geographical location & accessibility of some regions make it hard for some businesses. For instance, some areas are too dry and others too humid for some cosmetic solutions.
Legislations vary from country to country about various issues such as consumer protection, health & safety, advertising standards, Labour laws, competition and Equal Rights. A recent example of this is the global mobile payment product Mpesa failing to scale to Ethiopia because of competition policies seeking to help more local companies.
In conclusion, is this another sad story about Africa? Definitely not. It’s a call for more emerging economies to use technology to write about it’s past, present and future. Emerging tech does present many opportunities to help solve many problems we face. But not all. It’s thus critical to separate fact from fiction, taking into account our diversity, capabilities, priorities & realities. It is also essential to move the tech conversation from one about technology to one about problem-solving. Once we shift this conversation to solution building, driven by design thinking, only then can we as Africans explore the real possibilities of what Africa’s future will look like. Lastly, we have to evaluate all technology, discern the good & the bad, then move forward wisely & ethically. One of the biggest challenges governments are facing at the moment with Covid-19 is fake information being spread across communication channels. We will have to embrace the good & bad that comes with any form of progress.
What do you see as the future of tech in Africa?
- In loving memory of Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther- died 28 August 2020*
Happy Holidays everyone!