Africa’s AI Future in the Context of the US-China AI Race

Tags
AI Arms Race
Africa
Geopolitics
China
Two of the world’s biggest economies, the US and China, are going head-to-head to become the powerhouse in shaping AI policy and investments in Africa. With burgeoning activity across the continent, bolstering efficiency in several sectors, their presence doesn’t come without perils. This analysis examines the origins of this competition, US-China activities across the continent,  potential pitfalls and policy considerations.


An abundance of resources and growth

On a global world stage, Africa has become an arena for the increasing competition between China and the US. This stems from three key factors:
1. Rare earth metals found in Africa needed for the enhancement of AI;
2. A rising youth population, set to account for 42% of the world’s youth by 2030 and;
3.  AI’s potential to make significant impact on the continent 
As for the latter, there are numerous sectors that can benefit from and be transformed by AI technologies. The digital sector is primed for immense growth, accounting for around $180 billion by 2030, set to increase as a consequence of the enactment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Jobs in AI are likely to grow by over 200% by 2025. AI’s potential is already being used to help detect cases of tuberculosis in Nigeria, combatting poachers in Malawi, and to prevent crop disease by Cashew farmers in Ghana. Further, aprogramme run by the South African Department of Health, called ‘MomConnect’ uses AI chatbots and software to assist over 1.8 million mothers with pre- and post-natal care.


Activity across the continent

Investments and partnerships

Over the past 20 years, China’s spend on digital infrastructure across the continent has almost doubled from $4.9 billion to over $8.6 billion. Notably, companies such as Huawei and ZTE have a strong presence in Africa, partnering with local continental giants such as Safaricom and MTN, to provide tailored solutions. The US has also sought to invest in and influence the development of the continent’s digital infrastructure, by promising over $300 million in aid and a further investment of $450 million in the sector as part of the Digital Transformation with Africa partnership.

Research and training

US tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon have set up research and data centres on the continent, widely used across Africa in relation to software services and cloud computing. Additionally, both US and Chinese companies have instituted programmes aimed at training African youth. Huawei committed to train over three million young people, and Google exceeding their goal of  training over a million through its free-to-access courses.

Too good to be true?

African legislators and policy makers need to be wary of falling into a trap of picking sides. It is important for African States to avoid  ‘digital influence’ or ‘digital colonisation’, where dependence on technology from a single country influences and shapes a country’s politics and economic trajectory. This has particular significance if China were to only enable its software to be compatible with its hardware. At a software level, the US has already tried to do this by forcing Google to not provide support for the Chinese manufacturer, Huawei.
Some caution also needs to be exercised around not being used as a testbed for assessing emerging AI technologies. In March 2020, Turkish backed forces aligned to the Libyan Government of National Accord, employed a Turkish made Kargu-2 autonomous drone to attack troops linked to renegade General Khalifa Haftar. This was the first reported instance of the global use of an AI based weapon to kill others in conflict, unfortunately on the African continent and by an outside actor. 
Facial recognition technology maintained by Flickr, Amazon and Google amongst others, were trained on using pictures of many on the continent without any real form of consent. Facebook’s ‘10-year challenge’, for example, was hugely popular across the continent and likely used in the development and refinement of Meta’s new AI models. Linked to this, is the fact that many tech companies have already begun exploiting the continent’s labour force, employing them as AI data labellers with minimal remuneration and no psychological and medical support. 

Policy considerations

In the light of the above, there are three key areas of focus that should be considered against the backdrop of this arms race: a comprehensive AI strategy, data protection laws and pooling resources. 
African countries need to resist the urge to exclusively adopt Chinese or American AI regulation, governance and norms. They need to be adaptive, and enact regulations that respond to societal needs and protect citizens. At a macro level, collective, continental efforts would work here in developing a comprehensive AI strategy and policy framework with actual supervisory and authoritative power.
At a micro level, policy makers need to institute measures aimed at data protection. There is a pressing need to prevent companies and countries from rapacious data collection and monetisation. Although 31 countries maintain data protection policies and 13 have instituted some form of panel or commission to assess AI strategies and laws, the influence of countries such as the US and China, coupled with the financial power of these large technological companies means that negotiations and regulation enactment is best achieved at a regional and/or continental level. 
This will also allow for the pooling of resources, since supervising and regulating AI requires securing the expertise of individuals and organisations with sophisticated technical knowledge, many of whom are easily tempted by the private sector. The launch of the draft white paper on AI regulation and responsibility by the African Union’s Development Agency is a welcome step. The draft paper recognises the potential of AI in the continent’s economic, educational and health sectors amongst others, while also advocating data protection, upskilling and the development of sectoral codes of practice. However, the paper says little about sovereignty concerns, geopolitical competition and the need for a continental-wide unified approach, leaving the door open for countries and companies to be digitally colonised at national and regional levels. 
Adopting a unified, grand strategy-based approach would also allow the continent to be more proactive in ensuring that AI is used to its advantage and not fall victim to a blanket approach, exacerbating existing local societal and labour issues.


Author: Ebrahim Deen

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© Global Center on AI Governance copyright 2024

We're advancing local insights to create global impact on equitable AI governance through knowledge production and exchange.

© Global Center on AI Governance copyright 2024

We're advancing local insights to create global impact on equitable AI governance through knowledge production and exchange.

© Global Center on AI Governance copyright 2024