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Are African roads ready for driverless cars?

When the Internet was introduced in Kenya in early 1990s, some of us predicted that once the technology was fully diffused, there would be no licking of envelopes.

This was a bold statement as many could not see how technology could replace letters. Ten years later, however, it was becoming evident that posting of letters was becoming archaic.

Children who were born then do not even know what the inside of a post office looks like, and teachers nowadays have to work extra hard to demonstrate what a letter and stamp look like.

In the next one year, another disruptive technology will become a reality: driverless cars on our roads. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has made it possible for you to get into your car and start working on your computer or mobile handset while your car takes you to your destination more safely than if you drove the car yourself.

Using significant amount of big data, computers are now able to mimic a human being and drive a car.

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That this is now possible is the result of advances in that technology that makes it possible for computers to process huge amounts of data within a split second.

This is what is making it possible for driverless cars to make right decisions on the roads. Perhaps this is what the doctor ordered for our irrational driving mannerism and road rage that clogs our roads unnecessarily. Research into AI is not new.

In an article in The Economist of May 9, titled Rise of the Machines, it is reported that the current excitement concerns a subfield called “deep learning”, a modern refinement of “machine learning”, in which computers teach themselves tasks by crunching large sets of data.

Algorithms created in this manner are a way of bridging a gap that bedevils all AI research: by and large, tasks that are hard for humans are easy for computers and vice versa.

The simplest computers can run rings around the brightest person when it comes to wading through complicated mathematical equations.

At the same time, the most powerful computers have in the past, struggled with things people find trivial, such as recognising faces, decoding speech or emotions, and identifying objects in images.

These developments are not without opposition. The article names some of the big researchers, including Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, one of the people who came up with the notion of existential risk – risk that threatens humanity in general.

Such opposition is to be expected; change is always resisted even when on the balance of things, it favours the positives around humanity.

There is a good case for embracing new technologies that promise solutions to our many problems. Unchartered big data hides many of these solutions, and the sooner we begin to decode heaps of these data, the better for humanity.

In my view, we should embrace this change and seek within it the opportunity to leap frog development. In Peter Drucker’s words, the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Now, before you begin to complain that these new technologies will take away the jobs that we are familiar with, you need to look at the Internet and see how its disruptiveness helped create entirely new kinds of jobs, from back office to customer service through business process outsourcing,

The Internet has created more jobs that we would never have created with the technologies that existed pre-1995. What we know is that we need to re-skill in order to fit into the new dispensation that we commonly refer to as the digital space.

We have the opportunity to leapfrog and create new solutions based on new disruptive technologies.

We cannot wait to be told where to go by the producers of technology today and hope to catch up. We must be important players. We must be innovators. The greatest risk we face as Africans is lack of confidence and the fear of failure.

But there is hope. Our young people have become some of the best players in the digital space. They have no fear of failure as they go around innovating even in the areas that they have little experience in.

US President, Barack Obama reminds us that, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

We are the change that we seek.” Innovation is the hallmark of change that creates new opportunities. We must, therefore, nurture innovation, accept its risks and outcomes, and ride on its wave.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.

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