AI becomes latest frontier in China-US race for Africa.


What’s the future of artificial intelligence in Africa?

When that question is entered into the AI platform ChatGPT, it answers that it “holds immense potential for transformative impact across various sectors,” notably health care, agriculture and education.

Human experts tend to agree, and AI is fast becoming the latest frontier in U.S.-China competition on the continent.

“To advance in AI research and innovation, African countries will need significant investments in computing infrastructure,” said Chinasa T. Okolo, a Center for Technology Innovation fellow at The Brookings Institution. “The U.S. and China could potentially be good partners to help with such initiatives.”

In the coming years, researchers predict AI companies will run out of data in English and Western languages but that is not the case in Africa where much more data is still needed, Okolo said.

“Thus, by investing in Africa, companies from AI superpowers like the U.S. and China stand to gain valuable data that they could use to build services and systems to be sold back to African countries,” she said.

South Africa’s AI drive

One country on the continent that is rapidly pursuing AI is South Africa.

At a government summit on AI in April, Mondli Gungubele, the minister of communications and digital technologies, said, “The era of generative AI is just beginning, and as a country and a continent we cannot and must not allow ourselves to be left behind.”

South Africa has already established the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa, or AIISA, and it is rolling out “hubs” at universities across the country. It was created to ensure that the country’s industries and sectors benefit from AI, said Hitekani Magwedze, spokesman for the ministry of communications and digital technologies.

“Through the AIISA, we have now created AI hubs in manufacturing and services, farming and agriculture, automotive and transportation, and military and defense,” with more sectors planned, Magwedze told VOA.

“South Africa has global partnerships with major countries such as U.S. and China in the G20 and BRICS,” he said. “These leading countries see South Africa as a gateway into Africa and the developing countries agenda.”

Magewedze said AI can help with unemployment, inequality and poverty in the country.

In May, Tshwane University of Technology will launch a new AI Career Tech Center in collaboration with U.S. tech giant, Intel.

“The AI hubs across the country are partnering with strong partners from the international community to achieve the objectives of the AI institutes,” said Anish Kurien, Acting Director of the university’s AIISA hub.

Earlier this month, South Africa’s Department of Defense launched a Defense Artificial Intelligence Research Unit at the country’s military academy.

“There is a need for African solutions to African challenges, and AI is an enabling technology of the [Fourth Industrial Revolution] which will play a role in solving many of the social issues facing our beloved continent,” Wayne Dalton, the deputy director of the new research unit, told VOA.

When asked about U.S.-China involvement, Dalton said, “South Africa’s AI strategy and goals are in their infancy” but “there will be plenty of opportunities for the U.S. and China to help us achieve these goals.”

The increased focus on AI in South Africa comes at a time when public opinion has increased for China and slightly decreased for the U.S., according to a new Gallup report released in April.

Trends in public opinion may not necessarily apply to collaboration on the AI front, and African nations will partner with parties that can offer the most value, said Okolo.

“While the U.S. government has provided substantial aid to African countries, China took a different approach by leading with infrastructure investments, which will increasingly become important as African countries aim to bolster their telecommunications and data infrastructure,” she said.

China and US interest

The U.S. has already invested in AI in Africa. Silicon Valley giant Google opened its first AI lab in Ghana, while IBM has research facilities in Kenya and South Africa.

At an American Chamber of Commerce Business Summit in Nairobi last month, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced a partnership to enable U.S. companies to invest in AI and data centers in Kenya.

 

Lisa Walker, managing director for Africa operations at Prosper Africa, a U.S. government trade initiative, told VOA the organization is advancing partnerships under U.S. President Joe Biden’s Digital Transformation with Africa strategy.

“Prosper Africa launched the Africa Tech for Trade Alliance in April of last year. Today, there are 24 private sector partners under this Alliance including industry leaders like Google, AWS, Intel, Cisco Systems, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, UPS, DHL, FedEx and others,” she said.

China also has taken an interest in AI in Africa. For over a decade, China has been investing in the continent’s internet infrastructure and connectivity through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In April, a China-Africa Internet Development and Cooperation Forum was held in the China’s southeastern coastal city of Xiamen and attended by representatives from some 20 African countries.

“Africa is an important participant in scientific and technological progress. The development and application of AI is of great significance to the developing countries, including China and African countries,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA.

As for U.S.-China competition in AI, Liu said, “China is willing to carry out communication, exchanges and practical cooperation with all parties, including Africa and the United States, on AI global governance to ensure that AI always develops in the direction of human civilization and progress.”

During their meeting in San Francisco last year and a recent phone call, Liu said, Chinese and U.S. leaders agreed to promote cooperation in the field of AI. Liu added that the two sides will soon hold the first intergovernmental dialogue on AI.

Prosper Africa’s Walker had a different take when asked about U.S.-China competition, saying U.S. companies had “incomparable brand value.”

“It’s the focus on mutual growth, local job creation and shared prosperity that continues to set American tech companies apart from international competitors,” she said.

However, Brookings Institution fellow Okolo is more pessimistic about U.S.-China involvement in Africa.

“While I’ve seen rising interest in Africa from the U.S. and China, I believe it’s honestly hard to say how well these countries are interested in specifically working with African countries to advance AI innovation,” said Okolo. “While American and Chinese researchers often collaborate with each other in academic AI research, these countries themselves are vying to be leaders within the ‘AI race.'”

According to the recently released AI Index Report from Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, the U.S. was the leading source of top computer programs known as AI models last year, with 61 compared to China’s 15. However, it found that China led globally in terms of AI patents with 61.1%, while the U.S. accounted for only 20%.

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