Companies across the world are tapping artificial intelligence (AI) to boost productivity and offer their clients convenience.
AI technology – the science of making machines act in rational, intelligent ways – has spread its reach across almost all sectors of the modern economy, from banking to energy, food production and transportation. It is helping tackle long-standing societal problems such as poverty and joblessness.
Today, AI powers everything from our web searches, streaming services, to our Uber rides and its use is on a steady upward trajectory. It is precisely why small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the growth engine of most African economies, should tap the technology to sharpen their competitive edge on the global stage.
It is, therefore, encouraging to take note of several SMEs in Kenya already creating waves in their respective sectors, thanks to use of AI.
Off-grid solar companies, for instance, are incorporating machine learning and AI within their kits. These smart solar devices can accurately predict trends and adjust performance to ensure optimal output at all times, regardless of weather conditions. This holds the promise of making farming more sustainable in the age of climate change.
Nairobi-based SunCulture, a solar irrigation technology company, supplies rural farmers with solar irrigation pumps capable of studying the weather using built-in algorithms and optimising performance at all times. The smart machines send phone text alerts to farmers advising them to time their irrigation, based on predicted weather patterns. Futurepump, yet another solar pumps supplier in Kenya, is similarly riding on AI to boost operational efficiency through remote monitoring.
Here, usage of AI seeks to tilt agricultural practices among smallholder farmers towards efficiency and boost their yields and incomes. This is a crucial recipe towards enabling more rural growers transition to commercial farming and upgrade their living standards and contribute to the country's food security. Farmers can now seize control of their production patterns, without being at the mercy of weather conditions. Azuri Technologies, which installs pay-as-you-go solar kits for lighting and powering electronics in off-grid Kenyan homes, has incorporated machine learning in its devices, as has M-Kopa. These smart kits provide light in off-grid households every night regardless of whether there was sunshine during the day or not. They monitor homes' power usage and adjusts light brightness according to levels of energy stored in the battery in order to sustainably meet the customers' daily power needs, including nighttime.
Hello Tractor, on the other hand, allows farmers to share farming equipment where they can order tractors through their phones Uber-style. Mobile phone lenders, including commercial banks, are also relying on AI to review online loan applications and make disbursements. Twiga Foods, an online marketplace for fruit and vegetables, is equally riding the AI wave.
These are just a few examples of firms leveraging the technology to combat poverty, joblessness, and a host of other social and economic challenges.
But while the uptake is growing, it's far off from its full potential. Many more SMEs in Africa, not just in Kenya, are yet to adopt AI, and therefore could miss out on its immense benefits.
While consulting firm PwC estimates that AI and related technologies will add more than $15 trillion to the world's GDP by 2030, nearly 70 percent of that economic impact will be concentrated in China and North America.
To avoid being left behind, countries in Africa should open access to big data, set standards so that networks and technologies can play together, and ramp up financial support for technology start-ups, which could be crucial drivers of AI innovation.
Managed properly, AI technology could improve electricity access in far flung villages. It could allow schools to harness virtual reality and other e-learning technology, bolstering the state of education. And it could buttress medical care by helping doctors diagnose diseases and monitor patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes. In Rwanda, AI technology powers drones that deliver medical supplies to isolated communities.
But as any dystopian novel or Hollywood film will tell you, AI is not without its risks.
Automation could render obsolete jobs that employ millions.
It could also widen the gulf between the corporate haves and have nots. Since AI needs data, smaller companies without access to reams of customer information will struggle even more to compete against the likes of Amazon and Alibaba.
Even more worrisome is AI's potential negative impact on the society if it's used to invade privacy, sow mistrust or supress dissent.
Therefore, there's need to introduce legislation and industry standards and codes to support only technology that does good and one that which contributes to broad-based economic growth.