Will automation, artificial intelligence and robotics – or as it’s been called, the ‘rise of the machines’ – really reduce the value of people and their roles as meaningful contributors to society?
Or will it unlock new avenues for creating value and new opportunities, which may manifest in greater industrial and economic futures for societies in Africa?
The Economist Innovation Summit Africa 2018, a conference I recently attended in Nairobi, Kenya — Africa’s "Silicone Savannah" — explored these issues directly, investigating the opportunities and challenges of digital transformation in Africa through the viewpoints of business leaders, policymakers, entrepreneurs, technologists and thinkers from a wide range of professions and industries across the world.
But for me, it’s not a conversation that should be understood as the rise of machines, but rather as the rise of connectivity, and what this means for Africans, especially in terms of how new value can be created, and aspects like skills shortages and poor infrastructure addressed.
Africa faces a deficit of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructural spend that prevents many isolated communities from receiving even the most basic services.
Yet with rapid developments in aerial drone technology, for example — as a fellow panellist pointed out — drones can be deployed to supply critical consumables such as medical supplies or animal vaccines to remote, otherwise inaccessible settlements.
This is already happening in Rwanda, where a company called Zipline has operated the world’s only national-scale drone delivery system since October 2016. As the costs of this technology continue to become even more affordable, so will governments’ capacity to deliver rural healthcare and rapidly stock other consumables increase rapidly.
At the very centre of all these smart technologies is connectivity. The digital connectivity of pretty much everything in our world is an inevitability.
This isn’t a phenomenon that’s foreign to people in Africa. On the contrary, where adoption of mobile telephony, for instance, was among the fastest anywhere in the world, it’s not just something Africans are familiar with; it’s something they have innovatively mobilised in their day-to-day activities.
Whereas smartphone payments, for example, are becoming more and more popular in the United States, mobile money is old news in Kenya.
M-Pesa, the country’s most popular mobile payment service with over 18 million active users, was designed to serve the micro-payment requirements of Africa’s so-called "base of the pyramid," giving anyone with a mobile phone the power to send and receive money at the touch of a button. Now used in 10 countries, M-Pesa processed around six billion transactions in 2016.
It’s just one example of Africans using connectivity innovatively to better service the pyramid base. It’s suggested that M-Pesa’s mobile money services have lifted 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty.
If connectivity is now an intrinsic part of life across Africa, this is especially pronounced amongst the continent’s youth: digital natives that use connected technologies intuitively.
Digitisation and Digital Twin
The concept of a "digital twin" is one that most people experience every day on their smartphone. It’s therefore not a huge stretch to understand that a "thing," such as some sort of industrial device, too, could have a digital twin through which it can be controlled, monitored and analysed.
With this massive latent potential of digitally savvy people in Africa, is Africa not more likely to become a digitisation giant than a manufacturing one?
Africa’s digital natives are ready for the digital era; the question is how do we skill and educate people to make them employable, how we can enable them to develop the skill sets that will facilitate their meaningful participation in this new digital economy?
One way is by using smart technologies in innovative ways that are increasing the potential for learning. For example, application- and industry-specific experiential learning platforms that make use of virtual and augmented reality to accurately simulate actual plant and production processes.
Hypothetical production issues, such as bottlenecks or unplanned equipment downtime, can be re-created with lifelike accuracy in a virtual environment, and which demand analytical and problem-solving skills to correct the issue. Such experiential learning environments are potential game-changers for training and up-skilling the youth in Africa.
What is critical is that we understand the fundamental purpose of connectivity. Connectivity ensures our ability to collect data; analyse it through data science, AI, machine learning and even reinforcement learning; and finally, transform it into actionable intelligence that can create new value for humans.
While the most labour-intensive and dangerous tasks will continue to be replaced by automated machines that improve the efficiency and productivity of industrial output, so will digital technologies create new opportunities amongst Africa’s digital natives for whom connectivity is such a fundamental part of life.
Our opportunity as Africans – individuals, organisations and governments – lies in our innovativeness in how we can use new technologies in disruptive ways, a need to innovate driven often by basic necessity. This is how countries in Africa should be thinking about their industrial futures.