Artificial intelligence and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The prospects, issues, and questions the Middle East and Africa should consider


On the 13th and 14th of October, the Access to Knowledge for Development (A2K4D) Center at the School of Business held their Ninth Annual Workshop under the title of “Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for the Middle East and Africa?” The workshop included two days of public talks, as well as panel discussions with A2K4D’s partners from the Leverhulme Centre for The Future of Intelligence (CFI), at the University of Cambridge and the Open African Innovation Research Partnership (Open AIR), of which the center is the North African hub.

On the first day, A2K4D invited Dr Nikolaos Mavridis, PhD MIT, an academic and consultant of robotics and Artificial Intelligence to provide a brief history as well as touch upon the potential prospects on the topic in a talk titled “From Robots and Artificial Intelligence, Towards Our Future.”

Mavridis was part of a team that invented the first ever Arabic-speaking AI robot, named Ibn Sina, after the 11th century Muslim scholar. During his presentation, he discussed the positives that AI and robotics have brought and will continue to bring in the future, and diffused many of the myths that surround them. One of the points that stood out the most was the economic impact of these new technologies, specifically with regards to jobs and the labour market.

There is much anxiety around the world today over the potentially negative impact of the adoption and proliferation of AI and robots. There are fears that they will cause millions to become unemployed, especially those who work in low-skill and manual labour jobs, which will be rendered obsolete.

However, Mavridis countered this sentiment with alternative attitudes that can be taken towards the emergence of these new technologies. He brought up the usual thought of “humans vs. machines” and suggested instead the notion of “humans and machines”. Instead of replacing people, machines can enable people and improve lives, assisting in tasks alongside humans. Some of the key examples presented were how robots can significantly help people with physical disabilities and facilitate communication and teaching with people who are on the autism spectrum.

More jobs will also be created, Mavridis continued. However, the question remains as to whether the number of job opportunities that AI and machines will create will offset the numbers of jobs that will be lost. In the medical field, it is predicted that most doctors will play a more emotional support role with patients, with the traditional medical services such as surgeries to be taken over by machines. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will necessitate new sets of skills and subjects to be taught in schools, vocational training, and universities to prepare future workforces, but many of the cited potential new jobs that would be created were very high-skill or in need of an academic education. A question looms over whether a future high-tech, automated economy dependent on artificial intelligence will produce enough of these high-skill jobs to absorb a highly educated workforce.

Touching on a more utopian outlook, Mavridis also mentioned that with AI and robots taking over more and more labour-intensive jobs, humans will have more free time to pursue more creative endeavours. This is a prediction made by some based on the fact that a high-tech future would be highly productive and profitable, generating a surplus that can be distributed across society, fundamentally changing (and negating) the need to work in order to earn a living. Since AI, machines, and the surplus wealth they would create can cover everyone’s basic needs, people can instead spend their lives doing whatever interests them.

However, such a future can only be possible if laws, regulations, and proper taxations were put in place to ensure this kind of economy’s wealth is properly redistributed to avoid the dystopian possibility of masses of unemployed and poor living in a high-tech dictatorship.

A2K4D’s panel discussion the next day dived into the many issues the Middle East and Africa are facing (and will face) in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The first workshop panel included Dr Nagla Rizk, the centre’s founding director; together with partners from the Open African Innovation Research Partnership (Open AIR) of which A2K4D is the North African Hub. Dr Tobias Schonwetter, the director of the Intellectual Property Unit and associate professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa; Dr Florian Martin-Bariteau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and director of its Centre for Law, Technology, and Society; and Dr Isaac Rutenberg, the director of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology at Strathmore Law School in Nairobi, Kenya.

Also speaking, Nadine Weheba, associate research director at A2K4D, began the discussion by explaining how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is so far the most disruptive one yet, and brings its own issues regarding ethics, inequalities, and the aforementioned problems it might create in the labour market.

Rizk expanded on these issues, revealing the many inequalities that exist across the Middle East when it comes to artificial intelligence. One of the most important points she discussed were the many forms of data that are lacking in the region. Much of it is out of date, inconsistent, inaccurate, or sometimes non-existent. One of the starkest inequalities in the Middle East is AI infrastructure. Ensuring that AI is well-developed, inclusive, and shared across all of society would secure the futures of the region’s youth, she said, citing that a third of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 15, and another third are under the age of 29. More on Dr. Rizk’s insights on the subject can be found in her upcoming chapter titled ‘Artificial Intelligence and Inequality in the Middle East: The Political Economy of Inclusion[1] ‘  in The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of Artificial Intelligence edited by M Dubber, F. Pasquale & S. Das eds.

Education and curricula will need to be changed to teach upcoming generations the skills they will need for new technologies, as this will keep them relevant to the job markets of the future, as Schonwetter demonstrated with an example of how at his university, they are needing to take this into account when teaching law students.

A recurring point brought up throughout the panel was how the Middle East and Africa should have an AI and tech industry which is unique to the region, taking its most pressing needs into account, rather than copycatting Silicon Valley or merely being home to local branches of the Global North’s tech giants. The idea of the need for AI to be “decolonised” was mentioned several times. An example of this was mentioned by Rutenberg who talked about how AI will be crucial for combatting climate change and environmental issues on the continent, which is especially sensitive to the effects of the global climate crisis.

AI has the potential to either equalise or de-equalise, Rizk said. Already existing inequalities and levels of marginalisation can be significantly exacerbated by AI if it is concentrated in the powers of the few who would seek to exploit it for their own interests at the expense of the majority. Currently, the Middle East already has a problem with high unemployment amongst the educated, the reason being that they cannot find the jobs that require their skills. Rizk went on to say that as a result, the region’s best minds are leaving to find job opportunities abroad, draining the Middle East of local expertise that could pioneer a local Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Expanding on that, Schonwetter revealed that the Global South suffers from outdated and out of touch laws and regulations with regards to tech. Africa, in particular, suffers from high levels of data poverty, he said, and the continent as a whole is data poor due to many issues with data collection and storage. However, he maintained that progress should be pursued cautiously, as pushing AI too fast and too hard would exacerbate existing inequalities.

Adding to the issues Africa is facing, Rutenberg emphasised how education continues to be a problem, citing a lack of ICT training and expertise across the continent. He brought attention to an even more sinister issue. China had recently bought data from an African country containing photos of its citizens with the intention of using it to develop China’s facial recognition technology to be able to recognise black and brown faces. Even after building better infrastructure and improving data collecting and storage, Africa’s data could potentially fall victim to being exploited as a resource by foreign countries and corporations.

Nearing the end of the discussion, Martin-Bariteau talked of how digital inclusion and digital literacy were crucial to the future of AI. He said it was in need of being de-colonised, becoming less Anglocentric and less dominated by white, straight males.

For more information on the Open African Innovation Research Partnership’s activities, please see their website and this blog post by A2K4D Associate Directors for Research, Nagham El Houssamy and Nadine Weheba.

[1]  Rizk, Nagla. (forthcoming 2020). “Artificial Intelligence and Inequality in the Middle East: The Political Economy of Inclusion.” In Oxford Handbook of Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, M Dubber, F. Pasquale & S. Das eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  The online companion is available via:  https://c4ejournal.net/the-oxford-handbook-of-ethics-of-ai-online-companion/

 

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