By Timi Odueso
As businesses across the world create artificial intelligence (AI) solutions with their services, several governments are developing policies and laws to address the challenges and prospects of AI.
In March 2023, one month after recording over 100 million active monthly users, AI chatbot ChatGPT faced its first governmental hurdle when Italian regulators ordered the ban of the chatbot.
Although the service was restored weeks later—in April—the reason behind the ban reignited the conversations on government’s role in AI.
At the time of the ban, Italy’s privacy regulator Garante believed that the chatbot was unlawfully collecting personal data of its users, and processing it to train its algorithms.
Before Italy, China took the first step—in February 2023—in regulating the use of ChatGPT and similar AI services, to prevent the spread of false information.
Countries in the global east—Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria—quickly followed suit, banning AI services they believed could undermine the government’s authority and spread misinformation.
African countries aren’t left out. Six counties so far, including Chad, Eritrea and the Central African Republic have restricted the use of AI services for similar reasons.
Of course, it stands to reason that there exists a concern for AI when it comes to data privacy on the continent, especially considering many African countries are susceptible to cyberattacks.
In fact, in 2022, at least three apex banks in Africa reported cyberattacks in which hackers mined customers’ data. Multinational retailer ShopRite also suffered a hack where over 600GB worth of customer data across two countries were stolen.
With 36 of Africa’s 54 countries having enacted data privacy laws—and even fewer of them actually enforcing these laws—data privacy is still a concern in many sectors.
However, restriction on the basis of data protection is only one way of regulating the use of AI, a way more restrictive than it is innovative and if there’s anything that will move Africa forward, it is innovation.
While data privacy concerns have raised points for restriction in other regions, many are creating strategies and policies that will help them tap into the potentials of AI while addressing ethical issues.
China, which has a goal of becoming the world leader in AI technologies and theories, developed its New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP) in 2017.
The AIDP recognises the importance of AI to the country’s development and provides for the funding of AI implementation—with at least two regional Chinese governments investing $14 billion each.
Other countries like Finland, Canada and Germany also developed AI policies around the same period, policies aimed at promoting innovation in different sectors using AI.
More recently, in the EU, enactment of the first comprehensive artificial intelligence legislation is underway. The AI Act will help assess risks involved in AI development while promoting trustworthy developments in the space.
In Africa though, very few countries are developing AI strategies or policies. As of April 2023, only three African countries—Egypt, Kenya and Mauritius—have developed AI policies or strategies.
Mauritius’ AI strategy, published in 2018, outlines how the country plans to use AI to address social and financial issues, revive traditional sectors of the economy, and create new pillars for development.
The strategy identifies five areas of focus: manufacturing, healthcare, fintech, agriculture, and smart ports and maritime traffic management.
Egypt's national AI strategy, published in 2021, has a two-fold vision: to use AI to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to establish Egypt as a key actor in regional and international AI cooperation.
The strategy focuses on four pillars: AI for government, AI for development, capacity building, and international activities.
The Kenyan government, on the other hand, embarked on an exploration of AI's potential by establishing the Distributed Ledgers Technology and AI Task Force.
The task force published a report in 2019 that underscored the capacity of AI and other frontier technologies to enhance national competitiveness and expedite innovation.
The report recommended strategic investments in infrastructure and skills development, alongside the formulation of balanced regulations to safeguard citizens while fostering private sector innovation.
At least eight more—Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda—have plans to develop national AI strategies by mapping out their AI ecosystems and engaging stakeholders.
The importance of AI to the continent is underscored by its potential fiscal contribution to the economy. New reports from PwC foresee that if Africa can capture a mere 10% of the fast-growing AI market, then AI could add $15.7 trillion to the country’s GDP by 2030.
Already, Africa reportedly has over 2,400 AI organisations across different sectors with South Africa and Nigeria accounting for about half of that number.
Most of these organisations—about 41%—are however startups like Tunisia’s Instadeep which has raised $107 million since its founding in 2014.
African governments are slow on the uptake of implementing AI. By 2024, it is estimated that 75% of governments will have integrated AI solutions in at least three major forms.
In health, the UK National Health Service, for example, developed an AI tool that is helping hospitals gauge how to provide better care for hospitalised COVID patients.
The US CDC is also using AI to track and report on the poliovirus. France, on the other hand, is using AI to recoup back taxes; it’s created an AI tool that uses aerial imagery to spot undeclared properties.
Singapore has “Ask Jamie,” a virtual assistant that helps citizens navigate numerous government agencies through AI-powered chat and voice.
There are numerous other use cases across several countries using AI in their weather, security, lawmaking and data collation sectors.
It is quite clear that Africa recognises the potential of AI, but governments in the continent need to be more proactive about the development and implementation of AI policies if they want to spur innovation in their industries.
The Author, Timi Odueso, is a senior editor at TechCabal, a digital news platform.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.