A Tanzanian rural farmer hovers with her phone over a wilting cassava plant. She gets a diagnosis of the disease that affects her plant in seconds and how she can best manage it to boost her production.

The farmer used TensorFlow – a mobile based app. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine outsourced by Google to help developers create solutions to real – world problems. When people think of Artificial Intelligence, they most likely think of scenes from science fiction films, but in reality it applies to virtual assistants, language translation on Google, to everyday life, says John Quinn, an AI researcher.

Google now wants to position itself in places like Tokyo, Zurich, New York, and Paris as an “AI First” company and with research centers throughout the globe. And last week, in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, the technology firm opened its first center in Africa.

Benefits of AI

AI can be applied in sectors such as agriculture, health, and education, and Moustapha Cisse, the research scientist heading up Google’s AI efforts in Africa, says the goal of his team is to provide developers with the research they need to build products that can solve the problems Africa faces today.

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI.

“Most of what we do in our research centers at Google and not just in Accra, we publish it and open-source code, so that everybody can use it to build all sorts of things,” he said.

Cisse mentioned the app that the Tanzanian farmer used to diagnose the disease of her cassava as an example of the type of product that his team plans to work with relevant institutes across different sectors.

“A team of Pennsylvania University and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture using TensorFlow to build new artificial intelligence models that are deployed on phones to diagnose crop disease.

“This wasn’t done by us but by people who use the tools we built.

“When we do science, the results of our research, usually and hopefully, because it is of good quality, goes way further than we expect and we are hoping to see the same things happen here in Accra and across Africa,” Cisse said.

Cisse, a Senegalese expert, says the center engages directly with researchers in African universities by providing grants and PhD scholarships to those interested in the different fields of AI. He added that at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Center in Rwanda, Google also supports Machine Intelligence graduate programs.

Cisse leads a team of nine other researchers and software engineers. Team members come from nine countries, including Lesotho, Uganda, and Ireland. It’s a diverse team, and Cisse says it’s important for Africans to be at the forefront of solving their continent’s problems.

The center will also focus on enhancing the ability of Google Translate to capture more reliably African languages, with Cisse saying that a continent with more than 2000 dialects deserves better service. Google joins Facebook and other tech firms to launch projects in Africa with a keen eye on the rising youth population of the continent.

Algorithmic bias

Even so, companies in Silicon Valley are still struggling with diversity. A recent CNNBusiness report shows that after years of paying lip – service to the issue, many employees want real change from businesses.

Because AI basically works on the data fed into it, it sometimes shows a real – world bias that is not inclusive and representative of all end users, says Nyalleng Moorosi, a center software engineer whose work focuses on making AI more diverse.

Nyalleng Moorosi, software engineer at Google AI

Not long after it was launched in 2015, images of black people were tagged by Google Photos as “gorillas” drawing criticism and leaving the company scrambling to fix the issue. Moorosi, who comes from Lesotho and holds a bachelor’s degree from a college of liberal arts, says her background means that she sees the issue as a human issue that needs to be addressed by diversifying the samples used to collect data.

She said that to provide an accurate representation of users, more Africans would be included in data collection.

“When you build something, you think it will only work for the world you know and your neighborhood. And you forget that maybe it can be so great it becomes deployed to foreign neighborhoods,” Moorosi said.

“The best way to go about is to have diverse teams working on these algorithms and then we will get somewhere.”

Privacy Concerns

AI works because it feeds a lot of personal data, and this gives rise to concerns about privacy over what happens to the data people hand over to a big company like Google. Cisse says the principles of Google’s AI are aimed at building trust between people who create technology and end users, and the technology should be aligned with the values of society.

“We have to build an algorithm that is fair and respects the privacy of the user and is transparent,” he said.

With the center now operational after starting a few months behind schedule, they will now test Google’s bet on AI having a transformative effect in Africa. As the continent waits.

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Ujamaa Team

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