Is Malawi ready for AI?

Is Malawi ready for AI?

Malawi – more famous for its spectacular lake, great variety of fish and wildlife reserves – is rarely, if ever, associated with cutting-edge technology or modern innovations such as artificial intelligence. More commonly referred to as AI, it is one of the latest technologies to take the world by storm, garnering the attention of both technology stakeholders and the public in general, myself inclusive.

Opinions surrounding AI have divided the world, making it one of the most controversial and divisive topics of late. Some are in favour of the technology, leaning on its benefits to support their opinion. Others stand firmly against it and go as far as calling it a threat to humanity. It seems most people take a position in the middle of the  two extremes. This group is generally in favour of using AI in those areas that are helpful while regulating it to ensure that it is not
used for unscrupulous or criminal purposes. My opinion falls somewhere in this middle ground.

One question stands out in the debate surrounding AI: what are the benefits of this technology? What is so advantageous about AI that makes it worth advocating for?

AI can be used to carry out risky tasks instead of humans and its application reduces human error. Unlike human beings who require (and are legally entitled to) periods of rest to work efficiently, AI can enable machinery to work consistently 24/7. This makes the technology perfect for repetitive and “boring” tasks, freeing up time and energy for humans to focus on more creative and strategic work.

These benefits, among others, are the reasons one of Huawei’s key strategies is— to accelerate the development of AI for the good of humanity’s
social and economic development while building and implementing an end-to-end global cyber security and privacy protection assurance system.

But, however brilliant this technology is, AI has its limitations. I is only proficient at carrying out the same tasks repeatedly. If the creator wants to make any adjustments or improvements, he or she must
manually alter the codes. In addition, AI technology lacks a conscious. This makes it difficult to incorporate crucial human features such as ethics and morality.

Some of the drawbacks of AI raise issues that are more pressing in the context of Malawi. For example, the fact that artificial intelligence can perform repetitive tasks has the consequence of displacing people who work in those areas, thus contributing to unemployment. As a striking 91 percent of Malawians are currently jobless, this downside
is worth careful consideration. Furthermore, the cost of creating a machine that can simulate human intelligence requires considerable time and resources. AI requires up-to-date hardware and software to meet the latest requirements, which makes it an expensive technology to maintain, especially for less technologically advanced countries like Malawi. This raises an important question: Is Malawi ready for AI?

The good news is that Malawi is already making strides to embrace AI in various sectors of its economy. Agriculture is one such area, with AI being utilised to improve crop yields. A good example of this is an
initiative by Malawi Agricultural and Industrial Investment Corporation and a local technology organisation to develop an AI-powered application that enables farmers to identify diseases and pests that negatively affect their crops. As more than 80 percent of Malawi’s population relies on farming for their livelihoods, this use  of AI in agriculture could improve the lives of millions of people countrywide.

AI is also being used in Malawi’s healthcare sector where it is used to fill the gap caused by the shortage of healthcare workers. For instance, the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme has developed an AI-powered tool that uses chest x-rays to diagnose tuberculosis, thereby improving the accuracy and speed of diagnoses in Malawi.

While this is a good start, AI can be utilised to advance other areas in the country such as the education sector. Here, it can be used to monitor students’ attendance and grades and also predict future grades
and trends. AI technology can also revolutionise Malawi’s electoral system by detecting anomalies and verifying the authenticity of votes. The technology can further be applied in the finance sector or in anti-corruption strategies.

I think it is in Malawi’s best interest to continue embracing AI technology and that government should make available the infrastructure and resources necessary to achieve this.

It is my strong belief that if government puts measures in place to minimise the negative impacts of AI while maximising its benefits, it can improve the lives of Malawians and help the country actualise the
Malawi 2063 vision.

*The author is Huawei vice-president for the Southern Africa region.

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