UNESCO launches Artificial Intelligence Needs Assessment Survey in Africa

Artificial Intelligence presents a leapfrog potential for development in Africa, notwithstanding that these technologies are currently developed for and by companies, universities and governments outside of the continent. Countries can use AI and other digital technologies to catalyze their innovation ecosystems and accelerate sustainable development. Mr Xing Qu, UNESCO’s Deputy Director-General and Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information a.i., underlined the Organization’s ongoing efforts to support African countries to harness AI for their national development priorities. Stressing the significance of the publication, he noted, “its findings will help guide our discussions today on how Artificial Intelligence can be mobilized for the social good”.

The survey highlights the need to strengthen policy, legal and regulatory knowledge for AI governance in Africa. H.E. Mr Albertus Aochamub, Ambassador of Namibia, pointed out that the survey had captured the gaps in policy formulation across different domains like data protection, education and skills for AI among others. He added that “at this day there is no policy that governs AI in Namibia other than the 2007 Telecommunication Act”. He underlined that a challenge that needs urgent attention to strengthen “access to infrastructure at affordable for most”. Only 51% of the population has access to the internet in Namibia.

The survey notes that as AI policies are developed across Africa, countries will benefit from greater coordination and expertise to address similar and shared challenges. In this regard, Mr Firmin Edouard Matoko, Assistant Director-General for Priority Africa and External Relations, who moderated discussions, noted how UNESCO facilitates knowledge exchange among policymakers and other stakeholders in Africa through the organization of several regional fora on Artificial Intelligence.

More than half the countries that responded to the survey identified gender equality related concerns with the use of AI as a priority.

Gender equality is not only a question of women’s access to technology but also that of women as actors who shape technologies. There is a need to have more women from Africa in shaping AI development as it is unacceptable that male-only teams make 80% of the development in software linked to AI.

Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences

AI represents a significant economic advantage that can create new market opportunities. AI offers the potential for a radical transformation of economic and social systems worldwide. But it also poses challenges. There is a need to follow up on the findings through international dialogue around new labour market paradigms, future of work and economic model redesign.

Alaaeldin Zakaria Youssef, the Egyptian Ambassador to UNESCO

AI represents a significant economic advantage that can create new market opportunities. AI offers the potential for a radical transformation of economic and social systems worldwide. But it also poses challenges. There is a need to follow up on the findings through international dialogue around new labour market paradigms, future of work and economic model redesign.

The survey findings will play an essential role in facilitating regional cooperation by acting as a starting point for countries to work together on shared priorities. Ms Sally Radwan, representing the African Union Working Group on AI, shared the three objectives of the working group. These consist of creating a common African stance on AI-related issues, identifying and implementing AI projects of mutual interest and establishing a framework for AI capacity building in Africa. She mentioned that the African Union’s Working Group on AI will discuss the survey findings at its next meeting.

As one of Africa’s major development partners and a global leader for responsible development and application of AI systems, Canada supports AI development and use in Africa through the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). During the discussion, HE Ms Natasha Cayer, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Canada to UNESCO, stressed the importance of a human rights and multistakeholder approach for the AI systems. She appreciated the collaboration between the IDRC and UNESCO in undertaking the survey. She emphasized the need to foster similar multistakeholder partnerships to mitigate AI’s negative implications on societies. One such cooperation between UNESCO, IDRC and other partners is underway as part of the Open for Good Alliance, supporting the development of training data for localized AI development in Africa.

Mr Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Strategies and Policies in Communication and Information, noted the need to facilitate discussions about the policy priorities and the capacity building needs identified in the survey with a broader audience of stakeholders in Africa. UNESCO will be contributing to these efforts through the organization of sub-regional fora on AI in Africa in 2021.

To learn about UNESCO’s work on AI: https://en.unesco.org/artificial-intelligence

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