Sebuh Haileleul: How artificial intelligence is spearheading unprecedented change in Africa

Sebuh Haileleul

Digital transformation is the adoption of advanced technologies and the rise of innovations as companies and individuals reorganise to be mobile- and digital-first, multimodal, and intelligence-driven. It is a catalyst for engendering agility, and has become crucial for organisations to stay competitive, achieve successes, and even survive.

A key enabler of this is artificial intelligence (AI), which has been dubbed a ‘great transformer’. AI refers to systems that change their behaviours without being explicitly programmed to do so – simply put, they learn. These systems use things like aggregated data, usage analysis, pattern recognition, and predictive analytics to deliver intuitive insights or make choices, improving efficiency and even shifting business models across all sectors. It is also expected to ultimately boost overall economic growth, and create jobs not yet imagined.

Transforming organisations and industry

AI, machine learning, and automation are expected to provide organisations with new means to overcome typical challenges like time constraints, limited skilled resources, and bottlenecks to overall business processes. It can also be used to support security and safety systems, to spot anomalies and patterns.

AI platforms will support critical systems to run securely and reliably and extract the right information. That’s why we want to see AI embraced in Africa, bringing AI to every application, business process, and every employee. AI technology from Microsoft, for example, is enabling accident prevention through computer vision – scanning video inputs for potential risk, and using this information to improve organisational safety going forward. Microsoft Dynamics 365 AI gives employees the ability to discover predictive insights and, from these, take informed action. Microsoft’s Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise serves as a digital assistant, keeping users informed and productive, assisting them to complete company-specific tasks – and supporting the shift towards adoption of voice and natural language for interfacing with technology.

Empowering societies

We believe that AI has the potential to empower people – making the world a better place and Africa will not be left behind. Microsoft has invested US$115m over five years into initiatives that provide funding, technology and expertise to nonprofits and organisations so that they can tackle pressing issues within their own societies. Examples of this exists in Little Cab – a Kenyan cab hailing service. In 2017, Little Cab partnered with Microsoft to launch a driver login verification feature on its app, using facial recognition technology provided by Microsoft Cognitive API and selfies. A smart African-grown system like this ensures that riders have peace of mind while using the service, as it eliminates the opportunity for non-registered drivers to pose as Little Cab drivers.

Within the financial services industry, AI is the underlying tech that helped Finserve launched mKey – Africa’s first keyboard app that converges social, and financial services into an integrated lifestyle. Operating on Microsoft Azure technology, it also rewards users the more they transact, blending the best of social conversations with the full breadth of financial services, capturing that entire world on your keyboard, giving users the opportunity to make more possible.

Transforming economies

It is said that by 2050, the need to produce food globally will become crucial. With water levels receding and arable land already limited, the agriculture industry has been placed in the spotlight for needing to adopt innovative technologies crucial to long-term survival. At a time where resources and crops need to be tracked – AI enabled data-driven insights are able to boost agricultural productivity through increasing yields and reducing losses. Through Farmbeats, seamless data collection is can be collected from various sensors, drones and cameras. The solution also accounts for weather-related power and Internet outages.

Clearly the potential inherent in AI is huge, but the emergence of AI in combination with automation has also prompted fears – specifically about its long-term impact on employment. Opponents caution that many people may stand to lose their jobs to machines fitted with AI capabilities, particularly at the lower-skill end of the spectrum.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that new or refreshed industries will benefit from AI, which according to some research will actually create more jobs than it makes obsolete. Additionally, Gartner reports that AI augmentation will generate about $2.9tn in business value and recover about $6.2bn in worker productivity by 2021. Others argue that AI could contribute up to $15.7tn to the global economy in 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined.

At Microsoft, we do not foresee AI fully replacing humans in the workforce, but rather functioning as a tool that augments human abilities, freeing up people from routine, repetitive tasks, to focus instead on higher reasoning, creativity, and relationship-building – skills that remain uniquely human.

Microsoft’s vision for AI is one of empowerment – technology providing organisations and individuals with the tools required to innovate and perform to the best of their ability. Our approach of making AI accessible through infusing it in everything we do will only add and streamline the greater agenda of governments, forging the way forward to an all encompassed digital society.

Sebuh Haileleul is the general manager for Microsoft East Africa.