Mauritius, Egypt and SA are Africa's most AI ready
Mauritius, Egypt, and South Africa have ranked the highest in Africa when it comes to the government's readiness for artificial intelligence (AI) related technologies.
The leading African country was Mauritius in 45th position out of 172 countries across the world, followed by Egypt (56th), South Africa (59th), Seychelles (68th), Tunisia (69th), Kenya (71st) and Rwanda (87th).
"These results should come as no surprise, as African countries have historically lagged the rest of the world in technological developments. Despite the different generations of technology that African countries have 'leapfrogged,' they still face the persistent challenge of catching up, as the pace of technological change outstrips their leaping abilities," the report reads.
Globally, the US came top of this year’s Index, with the rest of the top five places going to Western European nations (the UK, Finland, Germany and Sweden), reflecting that North America and Western Europe are the highest-scoring regions overall.
On average, the lowest-scoring regions were sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South and Central Asia.
Lack of strategy
From the report, it is clear that the Global South is lagging behind the Global North. In particular, few countries in the Global South have published national AI strategies to set a vision for the implementation of AI.
Although many African countries do not yet have specific AI strategies, the African Union's AI Working Group met for the first time in 2019 and aims to develop a regional approach to AI and exchange expertise between countries.
"Collaboration in this manner could help countries develop AI strategies, identify other regulatory and governance issues, and learn from regional best practice," the report said.
In Africa, there is also limited preparation of appropriate regulatory and ethical frameworks; and governments themselves generally have low use of ICTs and low responsiveness to change, the report's authors said.
Is Africa ready?
The 2020 Index is the third of its kind and aims to answer the question: How ready is a given government to implement AI in the delivery of public services to their citizens? The Index ranks countries by giving them a score out of 100, drawing on 33 indicators across ten dimensions.
Mauritius leads in Africa with an Index Score of 53.86. To date, the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to publish an AI strategy was released in 2018.
The strategy also established an AI Council that advises the government on supporting Mauritius' AI ecosystem. Both the AI Strategy and the Mauritius 2030 Strategic Plan prioritize developing local talent, such as through making programming a required university course.
Leading in North Africa, the government of Egypt launched its national AI Strategy in 2019. The strategy has two pillars: building human capacity and supporting scientific research and innovation. Egypt has also created a National AI Council which is responsible for supervising the implementation of the strategy.
Likewise, Rwanda expects to have a data protection policy in place by 2020, expecting it to indirectly address key AI-related governance issues.
In Africa, AI is already being employed in several countries and in various sectors, including banking, e-commerce, health, agriculture, energy, education, and industry. For example, the report found that at least 86 African companies in 17 countries were using 4IR technologies (including AI) in the agricultural sector.
The academic and entrepreneurial communities are particularly active. A mapping of emerging AI hotspots in the Global South identified 148 players in nine sub-Saharan African countries, mostly in academia.
In 2019 there were about 6500 technology startups in Africa, of which about 10% were focused on 4IR technologies such as IoT, Big Data and AI. The AI sector in Africa received about US$17.5 million in government and private sector investments in 2019, yet the potential of AI remains largely untapped, the report said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also demonstrated the strategic importance of AI in healthcare and governments worldwide.
"From the pharmaceutical companies using AI to assist with the development of new drugs and treatments to the use of AI to assist contact tracing with mobile phone and geolocation data, new technologies have helped governments manage the pandemic, and may well play a role in the economic recovery to follow," the report said.
— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa