Africa prepares for age of robots

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The adoption of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa received a major boost after Uniccon Group, an Abuja-based tech startup, unveiled the continent’s first humanoid robot.

Omeife, the 1.8m female human-like robot, is African by design and has Igbo-like physical attributes. The battery-powered robot can speak Igbo, Yoruba, English, French, Swahili, Wazobia, Pidgin, Afrikaans and Arabic with native accents. 

Uniccon Group chief executive Chuks Ekwueme said: “Omeife also identifies objects and calculates positions and distances of objects.” 

The launch of Omeife comes a few months after Abdul Malik Tejan-Sie, a South African-based Sierra Leonean innovator, presented a prototype of South Africa’s first humanoid robot. 

The 2021 Government AI Readiness Report ranks Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Cape Verde as the most accommodating and prepared for AI uptake in the continent. 

Fred Sagwe, co-founder and chief executive of the Robotics Society of Kenya, says the regulatory environment, financial input and availability of research labs would fast-track AI penetration in Africa.

“In Kenya, science and engineering fairs and associations such as the Young Scientists Kenya and Techkidz Africa have been vital in offering support to young AI and robotics enthusiasts,” he said.

But Sagwe believes the real indicator of success is more investment in research and data hubs.

In Nigeria, the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics has significantly pushed the country to advance in machine learning, the Internet of Things, blockchain technology, intelligent robotics, extended reality and digital manufacturing and prototyping.

In South Africa, the government launched the AI Institute of South Africa alongside AI hubs at the University of Johannesburg and Tshwane University of Technology in November. This came after the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution recommended their establishment for South Africa to fully tap into technology opportunities.

Sagwe said that significant innovations in AI and robotics in Africa and beyond have been realised through robust research, thus data hubs and research centres play a big role in the sector’s development. 

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, in an October 2022 report showed that Africa is integrating AI technology in food security and agricultural output, healthcare delivery, improved government services, better communications and access to public resources.

Many of these areas of integration have been ratified by individual national agencies with investment support from the private sector.

But Sagwe said that having a national policy guiding AI and robotics adoptions is critical.

“For a long time, digital big-wigs such as Google have been at the centre of driving investment in AI technology in Africa, but with national strategic policies guiding the sector, more private investors are showing interest,” he added.

Mauritius offers fiscal incentives to AI startups besides providing strategic guidance on potential investment areas as part of the strategy.

“The benefits of adopting AI, especially in business and the broader national and continental economy, are immense,” Sagwe said.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that Africa’s economy could hit $15.7 trillion by 2030 if the continent adjusts and taps into 10% of the AI global market.

“Fear of losing jobs to computers is common … but AI can allow many jobs to evolve,” said Sagwe.

The game changer is introducing AI and robotics learning to schoolchildren, said Sagwe. “Growing up with robotics kits will inspire many of them to find a career in computer science and general AI courses.

“This is already happening in Kenya and hopefully will be replicated so that adoption is continental,” he said. — bird story agency

Source : Mail & Guardian