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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Artificial Intelligence is here, time we got digitally adaptable


Spending time among the Mulot digital leaders in Bomet and African policy makers in Johannesburg days apart has finally piqued my curiosity. What are the possibilities and perils of artificial intelligence for Kenya and what guidance must we expect from the ICT Ministry Sector Working Group announced last week?


Popular and policy debate has grown dramatically over 2023. SMS groups and the UN Secretary General are now boldly discussing whether artificial intelligence is the devil’s latest strategy to take over humanity or whether machine learning may soon outstrip human thought. Some of you may still live in the comfort of the thought that artificial intelligence is science fiction. You would be wrong.


If you have an email address, posting on any of the major social media platforms or browsing the internet, you are already interacting with artificial intelligence. Human designed algorithms drive the web page adverts you see, your routes on GPS maps, filters for editing photos, meeting options on your calendars and language translation applications.


Simply, we are in a moment that is even bigger than the discovery of the internet back in January 1983. With all big moments, we must approach with a sense of dilemma. Will this moment damage or decorate the power of human learning, economic productivity, and the global village?


A couple of days with the Google Artificial Intelligence Academy this week opened my eyes to how fast and far predictive analysis based on big data and pattern recognition has come. Human coders have created new possibilities for predicting weather patterns, maternal health challenges and managing pandemics. Governments and development agencies now have the tools to make farming irrigation more precise and pre-empt resource-based conflicts. The same tools can be applied to alert anti-corruption investigators to detect ghost workers and predict big procurement fraud.


Kenya ranks 90th out of 181 countries most ready to adopt artificial intelligence technology according to the Oxford Business AI Readiness Index 2022. In Africa, Kenya ranks third after Mauritius and South Africa. Following the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples Rights Resolution 473, all African Governments have been urged to develop new fit for purpose regulations for this form of emerging technology.


There are three challenges before the ICT Working Group. For artificial intelligence to be a force for good it must go beyond current do-no-harm concerns. Governments must avoid the indiscriminate use of mass surveillance in public spaces. Three years ago, 64 countries were already using CCTV mass surveillance technology without the consent of their citizens. According to Chatham House, less than 15 per cent of the AI laws and policies currently being developed internationally are founded on human rights principles.


Cambridge Analytica kicked off a decade of audience manipulation using big data a decade ago. Today, disinformation and misinformation drive fake photos, videos and posts that are intentionally designed to provoke grievances, polarise societies and target others for their ideas, identities, or behaviour. 70 per cent of Kenyans do not trust social media posts anymore according to the Council for Social Media Responsibility. Artificial intelligence is revolutionary, but it comes on the back of massive disinformation. If content is king, algorithms are emperors and we are it’s subjects.


Lastly, artificial intelligence must not widen the digital divide, generate joblessness without reskilling and be used to profile and discriminate against populations. We must build public understanding and ethical policy guidelines to ensure that informed and prior consent guides the use of our personal information. Those posting machine generated synthetic information can make both information and the algorithms transparent to users.


The future of the work is changing. I was reminded recently that before alarm clocks were invented in 1787, waking the higher classes was a job in the United States of America. It’s time again to relook at our democracy and all sectors of the economy, pivot or be left behind. As Google’s Charles Murito argues, can we have the persistence of children learning to walk for the first time and become digitally adaptable?


This article was also published in the Saturday Standard 16 September 2023.

You can read the Chatham House Human Rights and Artificial Intelligence report here and the Oxford Business School Global AI Readiness Index here

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